Hizbollah chief says UN Hariri probe ‘will disappear'

Despite fiery rhetoric, tone of Nasrallah TV speech is seen as more conciliatory than in recent months as Lebanese government is urged to stand aside in 'dispute' with tribunal over prime minister's murder.

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BEIRUT //The UN-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri will "disappear with the wind", the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said yesterday.

In a televised speech to tens of thousands gathered in Beirut for the Shiite holy day of Ashura, Mr Nasrallah urged the Lebanese government to stand aside in the Shiite group's "dispute" with the tribunal over the former prime minister's murder.

"This new conspiracy against the resistance and Lebanon, dubbed the international tribunal, will disappear with the wind," he said.

Despite the rhetoric, however, observers said Mr Nasrallah's tone was more conciliatory than in recent months.

His comments came after a cabinet meeting was adjourned on Wednesday night without resolving the dispute over accusations over some of the evidence provided to the tribunal, which is expected to indict members of Hizbollah over the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.

"Leave the dispute between us and the international tribunal," Mr Nasrallah said after the cabinet meeting. "Why do you spend days and nights defending the tribunal, investigations and false witnesses?"

Lebanon's rival political factions disagree deeply on how to deal with witnesses accused of giving false and misleading evidence to international investigators trying to identify who was behind the 2005 assassination. The dispute has led the Lebanese cabinet to its continuing impasse.

Hizbollah is desperate to halt or discredit the tribunal. Together with its opposition allies, the group has been pushing for months to have the "false witnesses" tried in Lebanon's highest court, known as the Judicial Council.

It also wants to have the matter decided in cabinet by a simple vote, which the governing coalition led by Saad Hariri, the prime minister, is rejecting. Mr Hariri, the murdered man's son, says a trial in the Judicial Council would be unconstitutional because is reserved for those accused of compromising national security.

Wednesday night's cabinet meeting, the first in more than five weeks, was adjourned after just three hours.

The president, Michel Suleiman, brought a halt to the session when Hizbollah and its opposition allies called for a vote on the "false witness" issue. Both the president and the ruling coalition insist that the cabinet decision be made by broad consensus and not by a vote.

Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said: "I don't think the president would allow the issue ever to be brought to a vote. If they had voted on the matter then this would be a reason for the majority coalition to walk out."

In another speech yesterday, Mr Nasrallah called the Hariri tribunal corrupt and accused Gerhard Lehmann, its deputy head, of leaking classified information relating to the probe and offering to sell information to Hizbollah.

"Does anyone seeking the truth accept such an investigation, such corrupt investigators, such false witnesses?" Mr Nasrallah asked.

The speech coincided with the sacred Shiite holiday of Ashura, which commemorates the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson. Shiites took to the streets all over Lebanon, clad in a black, chanting the names of Imam Hussein and Mr Nasrallah.

At the root of the dispute are clashing views on the integrity of the tribunal. Mr Hariri and his coalition say the truth over who was behind his father's assassination must come out, and that Lebanon's democracy and standing in the international community depend on it. Hizbollah believe the tribunal is politicised, and a US-Israeli plot to harm the resistance.

In his speech Mr Nasrallah said Hizbollah was committed to a unified Lebanon. "We announce our commitment to Lebanon, to unity within our country, and to peaceful relations among the many confessions and communities of our country," he said.

But Lebanon's crisis continues to escalate with no internal solution or compromise in sight. Both sides of the divide are increasingly counting on the "Saudi-Syrian Initiative" - named after the patrons of Lebanon's rival political factions.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse