18 March 2005
In Lebanon, tragedy and farce often go hand in hand. But tragedy turned to vaudeville yesterday when Syria's top Lebanese intelligence officer called a press conference to announce that he and his colleagues would "sue themselves" to clear their names of negligence over the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February.
Even more incredibly, Jamil Sayed, the head of the Lebanese General Security Directorate, announced that he had decided to bring these legal proceedings "without consulting" his colleagues. "All the heads of security institutions are ready for trial and accountability," he said. "We have no secrets to be embarrassed about."
It appeared that Mr Sayed, an intelligent man who does not speak without much forethought, was warning the political opposition to stop their attacks on him, on the prosecutor general, on the Internal Security Forces head, and other senior officers. Those who were calling for their resignations, he said, should "not mix politics with crime ... Let justice decide."
The honour of the Lebanese security forces was at stake, Mr Sayed said - the anti-Syrian opposition would certainly agree with that - and claimed he was starting his own legal proceedings against himself since no members of the opposition had filed a lawsuit. This begs a few questions. How can Mr Sayed be interrogated? Will he question himself? And how can he carry out such an interrogation when all the Lebanese evidence about Mr Hariri's murder is in the hands of - well, Mr Sayed.
"They should stop under- estimating people's intelligence," was the only comment to come from Walid Eido, a former judge and a member of Hariri's parliamentary party.
He might be wise to treat Mr Sayed less dismissively. The security head is possibly the most powerful man in Lebanon and controls passports, all border crossings and censorship.
But what did the announcement mean? Is Mr Sayed preparing for his resignation if the UN investigation into Hariri's murder condemns the Lebanese security services? Or is he telling Lebanese MPs that they will have to sue him before he resigns?
His statement followed only a few hours after Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement, rejected President Bush's latest demand for the organisation's disarmament. "We are ready to remain until the end of time a 'terrorist organisation' in Bush's view, but we are not ready to give up protection of our country, our people, their blood and their honour," he said.
Mr Nasrallah regards the Hizbollah as an anti-Israeli resistance group and thus hopes to avoid UN Security Council Resolution 1559's stipulation that all Lebanese "militias" must be disarmed.
In fact, Hizbollah's best defence was offered by Bahiya Hariri, the murdered prime minister's sister, when she told the million-strong crowd of Lebanese in Beirut on Monday that they must "protect" Hizbollah. It was an attempt to bring Nasrallah over to the opposition cause - although this would mean at least the partial abandoning of its military alliance with Syria. The Hizbollah have not responded to this offer.
At least 4,000 of Syria's troops in the country have crossed the international frontier; the remaining 10,000 are now in the eastern Bekaa Valley.
Syria's one million workers in Lebanon, however, continue to pay the price for the revived hatred of their country. Up to 30 have been murdered in the past four weeks - with scarcely a headline in the Lebanese press about this outrage.