Lebanon News

Deal in the works to extend Rifi, Kahwagi tenures

Army Commander Gen . Jean Kahwagi arrives to attend a Cabinet session at the presidential palace in Baabda, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Internal Security Forces head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi will remain in his post if the Cabinet prolongs his tenure, but only if the extension garners support among politicians and is smoothly approved by Parliament, a senior security source told The Daily Star Thursday.

The source warned against further assassination bids in Lebanon, highlighting that Rifi tops the list of potential targets: “Previously, the first one on the list was [slain intelligence chief] Brig. Wissam al-Hasan, now it’s definitely Rifi.”

The source underlined that Rifi has never concealed his wish to shift into politics or academia upon retirement from the ISF, and has always rejected proposals to extend his tenure.

“But after the assassination of Hasan things have changed and Rifi believes the ISF needs him right now,” he said.

The source said that investigations into the October 2012 assassination of the head of the ISF’s intelligence wing, the Information Branch, were being carried out “energetically” but tangible results will not surface for five or six months.

The source added that there were blatant similarities between Hasan’s assassination and the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“But we have yet to gather enough substantive evidence in that respect,” he cautioned.

Extending the tenures of Rifi, who is slated to retire in March, and Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, who will retire in September, would require an amendment of the law on appointing security chiefs.

So far, the issue has been contentious in political circles, with the political allegiances of the two security chiefs playing a role in delaying the decision to lengthen their terms.

As the March 8 coalition does not favor Rifi remaining in his post due to his affiliation with the Future Movement, some March 14 groups hope to see Kahwagi gone because of perceived close ties with Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement.

But the source maintained that the tenures of Rifi and Kahwagi will be prolonged as part of a “package deal that will please everybody.”

According to the source, conditions have changed since the death of Hasan, Rifi’s closest aide, who was tipped to head the security agency after the latter’s retirement.: “Rifi does not object overseeing the transitory period until a competent officer is selected to fill the post of director general of the ISF.”

The source believes that the so-called “transition period” will last for one to two years, up until the end of President Michel Sleiman’s term in 2014: “The newly elected president will then select a new Army commander and a new director general for the ISF.”

In the meantime, the security source predicted more intermittent security incidents in Lebanon, as a result of the unrest raging next door, but ruled out any major blowups.

Lingering tension between the Tripoli neighborhoods of Bab alTabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, where opponents and supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad have fought bloody battles that have killed scores since the crisis in Syria erupted almost two years ago, is far from finished, the source said.

The source explained that Rifi’s plans to enter politics after his eventual retirement stem from his belief that moderate Sunni figures and groups ought to be active in politics.

“But this does not mean Rifi considers rising Islamist movements a threat,” the source said, adding that in the event he becomes involved in politics, the security chief will uphold his long-standing alliance with the Future Movement.

The source added that the ISF and other agencies in Lebanon are keeping a close watch on fundamentalist movements operating in the country and are well aware of the “nature of the activities” they carry out.

“Lebanon will never be a base or even a breeding ground for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda,” the source continued. “Lebanon might merely be a transit point.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2013, on page 3.




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