DAMASCUS, Syria – The lead investigator in the assassination of a top Lebanese politician acknowledged Friday that he deleted references from his report implicating two relatives of Syria's president, raising questions about whether the U.N. tried to soften the inquiry's findings.
The report, which accused key Syrian and Lebanese security officials of orchestrating the Feb. 14 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search) and 20 others, was nonetheless a stinging rebuke of Damascus' regime.
The findings caused an uproar in the region and brought swift denials of involvement from the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad (search).
In an embarrassment for the United Nations (search), a version of the report sent to journalists late Thursday included text that had been deleted for the final draft.
The most significant change came in a paragraph that cited a witness as saying Assad's brother, Maher Assad, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, were among those who decided to kill Hariri.
Detlev Mehlis, the chief investigator, told reporters Friday that he deleted the names when he learned his report to the U.N. Security Council (search) would be made public. He said he did not want to suggest the men were guilty when they had not faced trial.
"It could give the wrong impression that this was an established fact, and for that (reason) these names never appeared in the conclusions," Mehlis said.
The deletions included a time stamp that suggested they were made in the middle of Thursday — around the time Mehlis gave the report to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. That raised questions of whether Annan sought to tone down the report's conclusions about Syria.
Annan's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said the U.N. secretariat wasn't involved in the changes.
"I can't be clearer. He at no time made any effort to influence what's in the report," Dujarric said.
Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, both Mehlis and Annan released statements later Friday reaffirming their earlier statements. In his statement, Mehlis insisted the changes were his and said he decided not to name anyone in the report unless they had been charged with a crime in Hariri's assassination.
The final report cited a Syrian witness living in Lebanon as saying Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate Hariri about two weeks after the Security Council adopted a resolution demanding Syria end a three-decade military occupation of Lebanon.
That final draft makes a single reference to Shawkat, saying he set up a false confession to Hariri's murder 15 days before it took place.
Yet the earlier version said two weeks after the adoption of the resolution, "Maher Assad, Assef Shawkat, Hassan Khalil, Bahjat Suleiman and Jamil Al-Sayyed decided to assassinate Rafik Hariri."
Khalil was Shawkat's predecessor as Syria's chief of military intelligence, Suleiman was the head of internal security and was removed about two months ago, and Sayyed is chief of the General Security Department.
Diplomats at the United Nations said the release of the earlier draft with the names could strengthen the Security Council's hand against Syria. The council is expected to meet Tuesday to discuss it, and it is possible the members will consider sanctions for Syria.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton sought to keep the focus on the report's findings, rather than the debate over which version of the report was released to reporters.
"I think this is really distracting us from the main point of the report itself, the substance of which doesn't change no matter what version you have or how good you are at software, or whatever," Bolton said.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said the official report was damning enough as it was.
"It is further evidence of the extraordinary view that the Syrian elite have held that the Lebanon is a kind of fiefdom," Straw said. "It is an unpleasant story which the international community will take very seriously indeed."