Politics muddy the waters of Lebanon inquiry

There is good reason why nothing consumes public opinion in Lebanon these days like the Special Tribunal.

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Nothing else consumes public opinion these days in Lebanon like the Special Tribunal - and for good reason. Each day that passes brings the country closer to an uncertain and potentially perilous outcome: will Lebanon's stability hold if indictments for Rafik Hariri's assassination are handed down?

The news this week that UN investigators may take up to several months to deliver charges against the former prime minister's killers is, in part, a tacit acknowledgement that there is more than justice at stake. After five years, conclusions are needed, but perhaps not as much as breathing room to unravel Lebanon's political Gordian Knot.

There are signs that Hizbollah will return to violence if its members are indicted. In a major concession to the group's primary sponsor Iran, Prime Minister Saad Hariri travelled to Tehran in November. But Lebanon's powerful Shiite party appeared unmoved. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, has refused to meet Mr Hariri, while party members have repeatedly lashed out at the tribunal's legitimacy.

As is often the case, Lebanon's fate may be out of its own hands. Saudi Arabia and Syria have been working behind the scenes to broker a compromise, and France seems eager to get in on the act. Although a reluctant Damascus has long opposed the tribunal, and indeed at one point was its main target, it is hoped that diplomacy can hold Hizbollah in check if indictments are made.

The intervention of foreign powers is of course partly to blame. Recent WikiLeaks cables reveal United Nations impatience with not only Damascus, but Paris's lack of cooperation with the tribunal. For all of its own faults, the investigation has become another chapter in foreign powers using Lebanon as their political battlefield.

Regrettably, as many Lebanese now believe, finding Hariri's assassins has taken a backseat to realpolitik. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, recently argued that the tribunal represents "a statement by the world that the era of political assassination with impunity in Lebanon must end". While the string of murders in the political scene is abhorrent by any measure, many Lebanese may well wish the rest of the world would stop making statements on their behalf.

Justice delayed may indeed become justice denied in this case. But, sadly, in Lebanon today, only the naive would say that justice comes first.