Former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam criticizes Syrian leader Bashar Assad in interview with al-Arabiya; says after meeting with Assad, Hariri left with 'high blood pressure and his nose bleeding'
Former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, a one-time stalwart of the ruling Baath Party, said Friday that former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri was threatened by Syria months before he was assassinated.
Khaddam made the claim as he declared a formal break with President Bashar Assad in a television interview for al-Arabiya, citing corruption within the regime and its failure to reform.
"Hariri was subjected to many threats from Syria. Dangerous things were said. Once he was summoned to Damascusâ€¦was spoken to in extremely harsh words by President Bashar Assad," Khaddam said in the interview, his first since leaving Syria several months ago. In the interview, Khaddam was bitterly critical of the current Assad government, saying the ruling Baath Party and other popular organizations had been reduced to vindicating "decisions made by the president."
However, he claimed to have left his homeland on good terms with Assad.
"There are differences in opinions, but there was mutual respect," he said, adding that his family was with him in Paris where he was writing a memoir. Nevertheless, he charged, the Syrian leadership had made many mistakes.
'High blood pressure, bleeding nose'
During the interview, he quoted the Syrian president as telling Hariri months before he was killed, "You want to bring a (new) president in Lebanon. ... I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision."
Syria had dictated an extension of the presidential term of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, which Hariri opposed. The move provoked a political crisis in Syria's tiny Mediterranean neighbor.
After the warning from Assad, Hariri left with "
high blood pressure and his nose bleeding," Khaddam said.
The former vice president however, said he was not accusing Syria of complicity in Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination in a massive truck bombing that killed 20 others on a Beirut street. He said uncovering the guilty parties was a matter for the U.N. commission investigating the murder.
Khaddam's comments reflected serious cracks within the Damascus regime. His claim was in direct contradiction to those of Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who claimed at a Wednesday news conference that Hariri lied when he told Lebanese politicians he had been threatened by Assad during a meeting on Aug. 26, 2004.
Several anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians told the U.N. commission they had been told Assad threatened to "break Lebanon" over Hariri's head if he did not support Damascus' decision to extend the Lahoud presidency.
Khaddam also launched a scathing attack against Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Rustom Ghazale, as a corrupt officer who insulted Lebanese politicians, including Hariri, on a number of occasions.
Khaddam said Ghazale had urged Assad to bring Hariri to Damascus and
"chop off his head because he had created this situation in Lebanon."
Ghazale is one of several Syrian security officials interrogated by U.N. Investigators.
Only Syrian official to attend Hariri's funeral
Khaddam became a Syrian vice president in 1984 and resigned in June. He was the nominal leader in Syria for a short period after Assad's father, Hafez Assad, died in June 2000.
Khaddam was been a member of the Baath Party's regional command for almost 30 years. During the Lebanese civil war, he was Syria's top official for the country, frequently visiting Beirut and becoming deeply involved in the day to day politics of the country.
He gradually handed over his Lebanese responsibilities during the late 1990s, but remained a close friend of Hariri and was the only Syrian official to attend his funeral.