By Robert Fisk - February 11, 2006
Republished from the Independent
A year ago, I watched an old friend burning on the pavement beside me. No, let us be true, many millions of Lebanese regarded Rafiq Hariri as an old friend. But he was a friend to me, calling me after I was badly beaten on the Afghan border in 2001, offering to fly me home to Beirut on his private jet -”Musharraf is my friend,” he had shouted, accurately if somewhat slyly – over the phone line to Quetta.
And, of course, I turned him down’ journalists should not take gifts from prime ministers. And so again, this 14 February, on the anniversary of his assassination – along with 21 others on the Corniche not far from my Beirut home -I remember the man and all the solemn promises we made to tell the truth about his murder.
First came a deputy Garda commissioner from Dublin. Then came a pompous prosecutor from Germany. Then there arrived last month a humble lawyer from Belgium. All tasked by the United Nations, no less, to find out the truth. Were the Syrians involved? This was the question.
Four top Lebanese security officers, all “close” (as they say) to Syria, were arrested. The Syrian minister of interior, former army secret police boss Ghazi Kenaan, shot himself in his own office in Damascus. Oh deus exmachina. I knew Ghazi too, an old sparring partner of the 1980s who used to make tasteless jokes about the kidnapping of Terry Waite. Topped, my lords and ladies.
“He knew what it was like to be executed,” one of his less pleasant friends was to say later. No doubt.
I didn’t even know it was Sheikh Rafiq until I saw the pictures in the paper the next day. I thought the corpse on the Corniche was that of a zaatar seller, one of the big men who sold the rock-hard bread on the seafront, and I should have noticed, of course, the little curl of hair over the collar, the sign that this cremating man was the former prime minister of Lebanon who had called me to help me back in 2001.
Only when I saw the caption – “the martyr Rafiq Hariri” – did I realise. I had watched him burn, like a spectator at a match. I had been 400 metres from his immolation. Everyone in front of me had been killed or wounded. Saved again.
And so the Lebanese watched the mighty course of justice roll inexorably forward. The UN would find out the truth. One of the Garda officers told me of his deep concern for the Lebanese. “They come up to us – they actually come up to us – and tell us to find out the truth,” he said. Of course they did.
The unsolved murders of Lebanon – of Kemal Jumblatt, of Renee Mouawad, of the Grand Mufti, Hassan Khaled, and of Rashid Karami and the rest (let us not speak of Elie Hobeika, who led the Phalange militia into Sabra and Chatila in 1982) – hang like a black curtain over Lebanese history.
Four men were imprisoned -including the general who used to tap my telephone in Lebanon. I even posted the number in The Independent – Beirut 370615– in case he had got it wrong. Phew. Down at my favourite restaurants, I could now wax forth with friends without looking over my shoulder.
Or could I?
For the other morning, a little bird flew through my bedroom window. My mum, Peggy, always talked about her ‘little bird’, the tiny sparrow which arrived with bits and pieces of information which she didn’t want to hear. And as a correspondent, it is, I suppose, my doleful duty to tell readers what I don’t want to hear. So this is what my little bird is telling me.
The Americans, deep in distress in their occupation of Iraq, have hatched a deal with the Syrians. In response to a request that the Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Sadr keep his distance from the Iraqi Sunni insurgents and play by the ball in the elections, Syria has promised to use its “influence”.
In response to an American appeal, Syria has arrested up to 8,000 Iraqi insurgents inside its borders. In response to a plea by Washington, it is cutting back on the assistance that the Iraqi rebels receive from inside Syria.
Aware that the highest levels of the Syrian security apparatus may be impeached by the UN enquiry into Hariri’s death, the Syrians are being “responsible”. The new and far more humble Belgian investigator gives no press conferences – had you noticed this? – and makes no statements. Silence, gentlemen, please.
Sure, Condi Rice goes on telling us that the truth will out. Wasn’t Hariri behind UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which told the Syrians to get out of Lebanon? Wasn’t that why he was murdered? I don’t think he was behind 1559, though that might have been enough for the Syrian Baathist secret police to assassinate him.
But all the big talk about justice and freedom and the “Cedar Revolution” – an invention of the US State Department which The New York Times obediently adopted – appears to be drifting away. George W Bush, who shook hands with Rafiq’s son Saad in the White House only this week, is sliding away from the truth. Getting American boys out of Iraq is more important, I suspect, than finding out who killed Rafiq Hariri.
I still feel deeply sorry for the man I saw burning in front of me a year ago. And I think he is going to be betrayed.
On 14 February, the anniversary of his assassination, I remember Hariri and the promises we made.