Syria's interior minister, who effectively controlled Lebanon (search) for two decades, was found dead in his office Wednesday, days before the release of a U.N. report that could implicate high-ranking officials in the murder of Lebanon's former prime minister.
The Syrian government called the death of Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan (search) a suicide, but opponents claimed it could be a murder to cover up top-level involvement.
The news of Kenaan's death shocked Syrians, and the government felt compelled to stress it would not affect the country's political stability.
Kenaan, who was Syria's intelligence chief in Beirut (search) for 20 years, was one of at least seven Syrians recently questioned by a U.N. team investigating the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Kenaan was a "central figure in Syria's occupation of Lebanon for many years," but that it was up to Syrian authorities to assess the circumstances of his death.
President Bush, asked about the upcoming U.N. (search) report, said he did not wish to prejudge it. But he added it was "important for Syria to understand the free world respects Lebanese democracy, and expects Syria to honor that democracy."
The government has been quietly preparing for the U.N. report by consolidating power, readying a diplomatic counteroffensive and taking steps to guard against any sanctions.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview with CNN before Kenaan's death was announced, rejected any possibility that Damascus ordered Hariri's assassination.
"This is against our principles and my principles, and I would never do such a thing in my life," Assad said. "What do we achieve? I think what happened targeted Syria."
Asked whether it was possible such a crime could have taken place without his knowledge, Assad replied: "I wouldn't think so. As I said, if that happened, this is treason."
He added that if the U.N. investigation produces proof of Syrian involvement, those involved would be charged with treason and could be handed over to an international court.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Mideast mediator, said if the U.N. report does point to Syrian involvement, it likely would revolve around Kenaan because of his prominent position.
"I don't believe it was a suicide," Ross said. "The timing is extraordinarily coincidental. It certainly would look as if someone was trying to create the impression the person responsible for (the Hariri murder) is dead."
Kenaan, 63, committed suicide in his office, according to the official SANA news agency, the first to break the news — a sign that authorities in Damascus, who tightly control the media, wanted it out.
Hours before he died, Kenaan told a Lebanese radio station: "I believe this is the last statement that I can make." He confirmed speaking to U.N. investigators but denied a report that he told them about corrupt Syrian officials.
A Syrian official said Kenaan shot himself in the mouth with a silencer-equipped gun. A colleague found him slumped on his desk and a pool of blood on the ground, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on such matters.
Syrian legislator Mohammed Habash said Kenaan was relaxed at a Cabinet session Tuesday night.
"Everything seemed normal," Habash told Al-Arabiya TV. "Certainly, the indications that came before it did not show he was under pressure here, or that his political situation was shaky."
Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah, however, told Al-Arabiya that Kenaan appeared "very upset and angry" over the anti-Syria campaign in Lebanon that followed Hariri's murder. Dakhlallah said Kenaan's death would be investigated.
In London, Syrian exile Ali Sadrelddine al-Beyanouni, leader of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, said he could not say whether Kenaan committed suicide, but certainly he was "a pillar of the Syrian regime."
"Whatever the case, his death is an indictment of the Syrian regime for the assassination of Hariri," al-Beyanouni told The Associated Press.
A prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese legislator and journalist, Gebran Tueni, said he doubted the suicide report.
"What happened today is proof that the Syrian regime is feeling the (U.N.) report is getting closer and closer to them, and they are beginning to panic," Tueni told the AP from Paris.
The interior minister in Syria controls the police. Before his promotion to minister in 2003, Kenaan was Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, a position of enormous power. Syrian intelligence controlled the hiring and firing of Lebanese officials and every aspect of political and military life.
Syria dominated Lebanon until mass demonstrations and international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops at the end of April.
In June, the U.S. government moved to block the financial assets of Kenaan and another Syrian general. The step indicated Washington was turning up the heat on Syria, with which it is at loggerheads over Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian militants.
Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, in Beirut, said Kenaan's role in Lebanon "and that of other officials in the Syrian leadership has come under increased scrutiny recently."
Many Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been quietly pressing Assad to turn over any officials who may be implicated.
If the U.N. report implicates Syria, some analysts believe Assad would turn over officers who served in Lebanon if there is evidence of their involvement. But they say he would never hand over family members, some of whom occupy powerful positions in government.