Bush urges U.N. to act on assassination report

Syrian leaders deny allegation of role in plot to kill Lebanese


UNITED NATIONS -- President Bush called on the U.N. Security Council yesterday to respond promptly to a report that senior Syrian and Lebanese officials likely plotted the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"The report strongly suggests that the politically motivated assassination could not have taken place without Syrian involvement," Bush said after helping dedicate a new pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California.

In Damascus, Syrian leaders dismissed the U.N. findings. The government of President Bashar Assad prepared to fight growing Western sentiment to punish it with economic sanctions.

The report and the reaction to it marked the latest escalation in tensions between the United States and Syria. U.S. officials have accused Damascus of harboring militant groups and permitting fighters to cross into Iraq to attack U.S., Iraqi and other forces there.

Calling the report that was delivered Thursday to the Security Council "deeply disturbing," Bush said it "requires the world to look at it very carefully and respond accordingly." He said he had asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to urge the Security Council to convene immediately. He did not describe what sort of action he had in mind.

France, with the support of the United States, is preparing a resolution that might urge sanctions on Syrian leaders implicated in the report, U.N. diplomats said yesterday.

The report did not implicate Assad, but it described an August 2004 encounter in which he threatened Hariri, and it cited a witness describing meetings between members of his inner circle planning the assassination over several months.

Chief investigator Detlev Mehlis will brief the council Tuesday. Mehlis' report strongly suggests the involvement of three senior Syrian officials and a Lebanese security official, but he deleted their names hours before the report was released.

He denied that he was pressured by Secretary-General Kofi Annan or anyone else. He said he dropped the names after learning that the report would be circulated beyond the members of the Security Council. He said the witness' claim was credible but since it had not been corroborated, "it could give the wrong impression" of guilt.

"None of these changes were influenced by anyone," he said.

A word processing tool revealed the changes embedded in the publicly released version, showing that key suspects in the plot included Assad's brother Maher; his brother-in-law and head of Syrian Military Intelligence, Assef Shawkat; and his close friend Bahjat Suleyman, along with a Lebanese ally, ex-security chief Jamil Al-Sayyed.

Syrian diplomats in New York and Washington derided the report as unfair and politically motivated. "There is absolutely nothing in that report," said Syrian ambassador to the U.N. Fayssal Mekdad. "It is all speculation and suggestion, and it would not stand up in a court of law. They can continue the investigation and they will see that there is nothing to it."

Mehlis' report said that the Syrian government cooperated minimally with the investigation. Investigators were not able to question witnesses privately, and so their answers tended to be "uniform," Mehlis wrote. Several officials, including Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, tried to mislead the investigators with false statements, the report said.

The Security Council will also consider a second report next week analyzing whether Syria has fully withdrawn all intelligence and military forces from Lebanon, as demanded by Resolution 1559 adopted in September 2004. If not, Syria could face further sanctions.

The council's meeting could result in the threat of sanctions for Syrian leaders or the nation. France will take the lead, supported by the U.S., as they did with Resolution 1559, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

The Bush administration, frustrated by Syria's failure to crack down on insurgents using it as base to attack Iraq, has been trying to isolate Assad and force him to stop meddling in neighbor states.

Maggie Farley and Ashraf Khalil write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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