The mystery of Mr Lebanon's murder

After the assassination of Rafik Hariri, his vehicles were taken from the scene on the orders of a former aide. And now, reports <i>Robert Fisk</i>, many believe the missing cars may hold the key to the killing
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The Independent Online

Now here's a strange story from Beirut. Strange, because it is one of fear and suspicion about Rafik Hariri's murder on 14 February; stranger still because - although almost everyone in Beirut knows the story -much of it has not been published in Lebanon.

Now here's a strange story from Beirut. Strange, because it is one of fear and suspicion about Rafik Hariri's murder on 14 February; stranger still because - although almost everyone in Beirut knows the story -much of it has not been published in Lebanon.

It involves a man called Ali Salah Haj and Hariri himself - and the mysterious decision to move the most vital evidence of his murder from the scene of the crime. Some say it is all a mistake, the result of inexperience or ignorance. Others believe it holds the key to how the former billionaire prime minister was murdered in a bombing that cost the lives of 18 other innocents.

It all begins in the late 1990s when Hariri was prime minister. He lived in a palace of pre-stressed concrete in the Beirut suburb of Qoreitem and travelled everywhere with a government-supplied team of escorts from Lebanon's Internal Security Force.

Of the 40 men regularly on his team, Hariri regularly drove with one of its senior officers, a man he liked, the heavily mustachioed Ali Haj. "Things were quite normal," one of Hariri's closest associates now says, "until Sheikh Rafik found that the Syrians seemed to know everything he was saying in his car. People thought he must be bugged or that there was a tap on his phone. And after a while, he decided that Ali Haj might be telling the Syrians what he was saying."

In a land such as Lebanon - where everyone listens to everyone else (Hariri had his own security informants) - that had to be investigated.

"So he told Ali Haj something very specific that the Syrians wouldn't like," the family associate says. "And, within minutes of meeting a Syrian official that day, the very same matter was raised with him. That day, Sheikh Rafik asked another security man to ride with him. Ali Haj was relegated to another car."

Within a short time, Ali Haj was reassigned - to a Lebanese intelligence post in the Bekaa valley where he dealt regularly with Brigadier General Rustum Ghazale, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon.

Now we flash forward to 14 February 2005. Hariri's armoured motorcade, struck by a bomb of around 600kg, lies blazing in the narrow road beside the St George Hotel on the Beirut Corniche. The vehicles, pitted with shrapnel holes, perhaps bearing traces of the explosives, formed a pattern which showed how the bomb scattered the cars - as well as the order in which the convoy was travelling.

But within hours - although every other burning car was left intact beside the highway - Hariri's vehicles had disappeared. The decision was taken by the man who is now head of the Syrian-controlled Lebanese Internal Security Force, a certain Brigadier General Ali Salah Haj.

He ordered that the wreckage should be removed from the scene of the crime - and this, remember, was the location of the murder of the most important figure in the history of independent Lebanon - and taken away on trucks to the Lebanese Charles Helou army barracks. Where they remain to this day.

Ali Haj was among the many thousands of mourners who later came to pay their respects to the Hariri family. Witnesses later recorded he was given a frosty reception. Ghenna Hariri, the young daughter of Hariri's sister Bahiya, a Lebanese MP in the southern city of Sidon, greeted him with the words: "Your place is not here." When he offered his hand to Hariri's widow Nazek - who now wears her late husband's wedding ring on a chain round her neck - she touched her chest modestly rather than take Ali Haj's hand.

In a country where everyone believes in the "moamara" - the Plot - it is essential not to point the finger. No one has yet discovered who set off the bomb that killed Hariri. But there are a number of remarkable elements about the Lebanese investigation.

The first is that, a month after Hariri's murder, it has still given no information about it. Furthermore, the bombing took place in a part of Beirut - site of a recent Francophone conference, close to the Phoenicia Hotel where many foreign dignitaries stay and within half a mile of parliament - the most heavily guarded area of Lebanon.

For the killers to have avoided the attention of the ISF, the army, the traffic cops and a host of other security organisations as they prepared their bomb was a truly extraordinary achievement. And for anyone to have ordered the removal of the principle evidence from the scene of the crime was an even more unlikely denouement.

One of those working on the Lebanese security investigation has admitted there have been "many mistakes made", suggesting Ali Haj's decision to move the Hariri convoy cars came about because of his conflicting loyalties - he had been one of Hariri's own bodyguards but was now a senior security officer - rather than any desire to cover up the evidence.

He also said the police are convinced the killer was a suicide bomber, possibly an al-Qa'ida operative who targeted Hariri because of his links with the Saudi royal family. Hariri held Saudi citizenship. Hariri's supporters are increasingly convinced the bomb was hidden under the roadway, down a drain or a telephone cable duct.

It's easy to see how each theory suits their respective creators. An al-Qa'ida murder clears the Lebanese and Syrian security authorities of blame.

The bomb-under-the-road story suggests the Lebanese military security institutions must have been breathtakingly careless in failing to notice the planning and planting of the bomb.

The Lebanese and the Syrians believe in the al-Qa'ida plot - even they are blaming the Israelis as a poor second - but the political opposition is increasingly fingering Syria for, at the least, incompetence, carelessness, even criminal negligence.

Hence Hariri's supporters - even many thousands of those demanding the truth about Hariri's death - are demanding the resignation of seven principal figures, all deeply in the pro-Syrian Lebanese justice or intelligence services. They include General Ali Haj. The remainder are: Adnan Adoum, the minister of justice and prosecutor general; Jamil Sayed, the head of Lebanese General Security; Mustapha Hamdan, head of the Lebanese Republican Guard; Raymond Azar, the head of the"mukhabarat" intelligence service; Edgar Mansour, the head of "national security", and Ghassan Tfayleh, the head of the security service's "listening department", the "Amn el-Tanassot".

The authorities have refused to accept the list, claiming all are honourable men performing their duties with patriotism and devotion.

Needless to say, there's an old Arab argument which runs in parallel with any ordinary policeman's first question: in whose interest was it to commit the crime? Ask the Syrians, and they say they would never commit such an act, not least because the calumny which the accusations have since brought upon Damascus have caused such political disadvantage to Syria's young president, Bachar al-Assad - who has himself condemned the killing as a "heinous crime."

Syria's political friends in Lebanon - some of them Bachar's acquaintances - have been pointing out, accurately, that the American neo-conservative project for the Middle East originally drawn up by Messers Perle, Feith, Wurmser and others, called not only for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein but for diverting of Syria's attention "by using Lebanese opposition elements to destabilise Syrian control of Lebanon."

How better to destabilise Syria in Lebanon than by killing Hariri?

Those million Lebanese who demanded Syria's withdrawal, the resignation of the Lebanese president and the truth about Hariri's murder on Monday do not recognise themselves in this scenario. They also demanded to know who killed ex-President Rene Mouawad, the Grand Mufti Khaled and the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt.

It is worth pointing out that the Christians among the demonstrators did not call for the truth about the murder of prime minister Rashid Karami and National Liberal leader Danny Chamoun - because wartime Christian militiamen rather than the Syrians are widely regarded as their murderers.

The imminent return from self-imposed French exile of the messianic ex-General Michel Aoun - who led a hopeless "war of independence" against the Syrians in 1989 which cost thousand of innocent lives - is a clear sign that the opposition here could find themselves gravely embarrassed.

Most, in fairness, do not personally blame President Bachar al-Assad of Syria for Hariri's murder. They were insulted by his speech in the Syrian parliament last Saturday but are well aware that far more ruthless men exist in Syria - and outside Syria's borders - to whom Hariri's fate could be assigned, or even self-assigned.

Many opposition leaders, including Walid Jumblatt - it was his father Kamal who was murdered - hope desperately Bachar was not involved. But it remains the case the Lebanese security officers who were appointed to guard Lebanon on Syria's behalf have established a wretched reputation.

Why, for example, were three more bodies discovered at the site of the Hariri mass murder in the two weeks that followed the bombing?

Ali Haj could immediately take the vital evidence from the scene of the crime - something which no police force in the world would do - on the grounds that he needed to "protect" it. But how come his investigation failed to spot three corpses at the scene?

When the Zahle MP and former Syrian ally, Mohsen Dalloul, announced this week that the Lebanese authorities "knew" who had assassinated Hariri - who was the unofficial leader of the Lebanese opposition to Syria until his death - those same authorities were as silent as the proverbial grave.

Maybe they are listening to the million Lebanese who demanded the truth. Or maybe they are just following the usual trade of all security services, silently listening to their telephone lines. I say this because just three days ago, Ghassan Tfayleh, the head of the Lebanese eavesdropping department, put a tap on my home telephone in Beirut. Well, there's only one response to that: call any time.