U.N. Tribunal Issues Indictment in Hariri Murder

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JERUSALEM, Israel - The U.N. Special Tribunal on Lebanon issued a draft indictment on Monday in the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a move welcomed by U.S. President Barack Obama.

"This action represents an important step toward ending the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon and achieving justice for the Lebanese people," Obama said in a statement.

Lead prosecutor Daniel Bellemare filed the sealed indictment and supporting documentation before pre-trial Judge Daniel Fransen.

The names of the suspects and additional details will not be made public until Fransen reviews the material and decides whether there's enough evidence to go to trial - estimated to take between six and 10 weeks.

"The prosecutor and his team will continue to vigorously pursue his mandate with respect to both continued investigation activity and the prosecution of this case," Bellemare's office said in a statement.

Last Wednesday, Hezbollah resigned from the government, effectively collapsing the unity coalition established 14 months ago by the slain premier's son, Sa'ad Hariri, who had been serving as prime minister.

Hariri was on an official state visit at the White House when Hezbollah brought down the government.

The Lebanese-based Iranian proxy had been threatening to quit the coalition if Hariri didn't convene the cabinet to discuss the pending indictments.

Predictions that the tribunal would indict members of Hezbollah had prompted the group's spiritual leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, to denounce the investigation.

But Hariri, bolstered by support from western nations, including the U.S., refused to yield to the sheikh's threats.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged all parties to maintain calm.

"I know this is a significant and emotional time for the Lebanese people, and we join the international community in calling on all Lebanese leaders and factions to preserve calm and exercise restraint," Obama said in a statement.

"Any attempt to fuel tensions and instability in Lebanon or in the region will only undermine the very freedom and aspirations that the Lebanese people seek and that so many nations support," Obama said.

Clinton also expressed confidence in the tribunal, saying the three-year investigation had been carried out "according to the highest standards of judicial independence and integrity."

"We call on all parties to promote calm and continue to respect the tribunal as it carries out its duties in a professional and apolitical manner," Clinton said.

"The United States and all friends of Lebanon stand together in support of its sovereignty and independence," she said, adding that bringing peace and stability meant that "the era of impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon is brought to an end."

Meanwhile over the weekend, the U.S.-based Newsmax website - quoting sources close to the investigation - said the plot to assassinate Hariri was issued by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

According to the report, Khamenei ordered the Islamic Republic's al-Quds chief, Qassem Suleymani, to enlist the late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh to assemble a hit team to assassinate Hariri.

"The Iranians considered Hariri to be an agent of Saudi Arabia and felt that killing him would pave the way for a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon," an unnamed source told Newsmax.

The report further stated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his brother-in-law, Intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, worked with Iran in plotting the assassination.

Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb in February 2008 in an upscale neighborhood in Damascus. Hezbollah blamed Israel for his death, but Mughniyeh's widow said Syria was behind her husband's murder.

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AP contributed to this report.

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