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French Version

UN probe will seek to interview Assad, Sharaa

The United Nations Commission investigating the assassination of Lebanon's former premier Rafik Hariri is to ask to interview Syrian President Bashar Assad, The Daily Star learned Sunday.

According to sources close to the investigation the decision was taken following the explosive interview given to Al-Arabiyya Television by former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam in which he virtually accused the Damascus regime of complicity in the murder.

Also on the list of people now being sought for interview is Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa.

Khaddam himself was also in trouble Sunday when Syria's ruling Baath party said it had decided to expel him and seek to try the former top offical for high treason.

The official news agency SANA said the decision was contained in a statement issued by the Baath Party's national leadership, the country's highest decision-making authority headed by the president.

"Khaddam made it blatantly clear he has joined the American and Israeli plot, which aims at damaging Syria's steadfastness and its nationalist role," the statement said.

After Khaddam claimed Friday night that Assad had threatened Hariri months before his assassination, Syria's parliament unanimously voted Saturday to call on the government to put Khaddam on trial for treason . It also accused him of corruption.

In a long interview with Al-Arabiyya, Khaddam, one of the longest-serving Baath officials and a veteran aide to the late President Hafez Assad, quoted the present Syrian president as telling Hariri: "You want to bring a (new) president in Lebanon ... I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision."

The reference was to the extension of the tenure of Lebanon's current president, Emile Lahoud.

Khaddam had also hinted that Assad was directly involved in Hariri's murder. He said: "Although we must await the results of the ongoing UN investigations, there is no way the Syrian security apparatus would take such a decision (to murder Hariri) on its own, and without the president's knowledge... it's impossible."

Directly after Hariri's death, Syrian officials had wasted no time in laying the blame elsewhere. Khaddam himself at the time publicly accused Israel of responsibility for the assassination on February 14, 2005.

The Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963, said Khaddam's comments to the Dubai-based satellite channel from his base in exile in Paris were a "slander which violates the principles of the nation."

Khaddam described the Syrian regime as mired in corruption and bribery and his comments about the Syrian President portrayed Assad as weak and unable to prevent Syria's allies in Lebanon from slipping out of his control.

Khaddam, who was in charge of the "Lebanon file" for most of the 29 years of Syrian occupancy, spoke of the circle of people surrounding Assad, who "get richer by the day, while millions of Syrians don't have food on their tables."

He said the "mine-field that Syria is currently in," was a result of Syria's own mistakes and its inability to manage the country rather than an international conspiracy against the regime. Khaddam had accused the Syrian leadership "of committing a series of blunders and misreading regional and international developments."

As one example, Khaddam spoke of meetings between Assad and U.S. Congressman Daryl Issa and former U.S. Ambassador in the Middle East Martin Indyk a few days before the extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term.

Khaddam said Assad came to him afterward, saying Issa would be "working on improving U.S.-Syrian relations and that America doesn't care about Lebanon, but rather about Iraq."

"Assad told me he believed the U.S. would come crawling to him for help with Iraq and would turn a blind eye to his presence in Lebanon," Khaddam added. "These wrong interpretations of political events placed Syria in many difficult situations, from which it is suffering now."

However, despite deteriorating relations between Syria and the international community, Khaddam stressed that the "Iraq scenario is not applicable at all."

"The U.S. will not use military force against Syria, but this regional and international isolation, as well as the constant threats, creates tension and worry," he added.

In the second part of the interview, aired by Al-Arabiyya Saturday, Khaddam urged Syria to start dialogue with the opposition to consolidate the country's unity during its "most worrying situation since independence. Syria is now in the center of the danger zone," he said from Paris, where he was recently joined by his family.

Khaddam added that Syria has lost most of its allies in Lebanon. "Not only has it lost its friends, but they have turned against it, describing its work in Lebanon as tutelage and occupation.

"There is no other way to protect Syria but to consolidate national unity with dialogue with all parties, even those with whom we had bloody enmities," he said, referring to Islamists crushed by the regime in the 1980s.

"This requires courageous decisions, including amendments of the constitution," under which the Baath party has the leading role in political and social life in the country.

"We do not want to make (Iraqi former president) Saddam Hussein's mistake, when he shut his ears and his brains to the calls for dialogue made by the Iraqi opposition," he said.

In the Syrian parliament, which is dominated by government supporters, numerous legislators called Khaddam a traitor. They also said he should be tried for corruption pertaining to the "Tadmor files."

The Tadmor files relate to the burial of huge quantities of toxic waste in the Tadmor desert, more than 10 years ago. At the time Khaddam was in power and he was accused of sanctioning the burial, after huge bribes were exchanged.

Faisal Kalthoum, head of the parliamentary Constitutional and Judiciary Committee, said in a statement on Syrian state television: "According to the law, what Khaddam did constitutes treason and incitement to commit a crime that affects Syria's security and safety."

Syrian media, which are tightly controlled by the state, did not repeat Saturday's "Tadmor files" quote but still carried rebuttals, as it is known that many Syrians watch Al-Arabiyya. Syrian state TV broadcast a report from its correspondent in Paris, where Khaddam gave the interview as he has been living there for several months. "It seems Mr. Khaddam has submitted his credentials to join the well-known list of false witnesses against Syria," the unidentified correspondent said.

Syria has frequently referred to false witnesses since the U.N. commission first reported in October that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials were involved in the truck bombing that killed Hariri.

Speaker Mahmoud Al-Abrash told the assembly that the parliament's switchboard had been choked by calls from citizens who wanted Khaddam to be prosecuted for treason.

Khaddam, who became vice president in 1984, resigned in June 2004. During the interview on Friday, Khaddam publicly admitted that Syria had interfered in Lebanon's internal affairs and had had a say in the government's formation among other political decisions.

On January 7, 1976, in a statement published by a Kuwaiti newspaper Khaddam announced that "Lebanon is part of Syria and that it will be returned to it," adding that "this concept should be very clear to everyone."

Beirut 02-01-2006
The Daily Star

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