An incendiary political mystery which began in the Lebanese Civil War may be revealed during this month’s transformation of Libya. Many in Lebanon are aiming to find out what happened to Lebanese Shiite rebel leader Musa al-Sadr when he went missing in Libya in 1978.

The first Libyan witnesses are beginning to speak out about what might have happened. But many others are worried what will happen to the delicate politics of Lebanon and Syria when the truth is finally revealed.

To Westerners, the story of Musa al-Sadr, a Lebanese Shiite cleric who led the powerful Amal Movement militia in the early years of the Lebanese Civil War and disappeared on his trip to Libya in 1978, sounds like that of a secondary plot of a political action thriller. But in the Middle East, every detail holds the power of disappointing, or angering, certain political actors, some of whom are already on the verge of reigniting violence.

Musa al-Sadr is allegedly a cousin of the infamous militia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr of Iraq, but he was born in Iran. His story began when to created the Amal Movement as a militia claiming to represent Lebanon’s Shiites, but the group split with the powerful Shiite-led Hezbollah movement which currently leads the most powerful bloc in parliament.

In the early stages of the war, these two militias fought several others and each other, each taking turns considering help from third parties. Along the way, Hezbollah’s alliance with Syria may have tipped the cards against Amal. When al-Sadr then traveled to Libya, potentially requesting third party help, he disappeared. As Lebanon’s Judicial Council indicted Qaddafi and others for al-Sadr’s murder as late as 2009, Qaddafi stuck by his story that al-Sadr left for Italy and that’s all he knows. The Judicial Council will hold a hearing on the case in March 2011.

Is al-Sadr alive or dead? This week, Abdel Monem al-Houni, one of Qaddafi’s oldest allies told al-Hayat news that Qaddafi’s regime killed al-Sadr, that he was buried in Libya, and that at least one other may have been killed to cover tracks. Meanwhile, Roula Talj, a Lebanese political analyst spoke with Qaddafi’s son, Saif, and speculates that al-Sadr may still be alive. But would a powerful religious, ethnic, and rebel leader who disappeared at the height of a civil war in his country just walk away and not come back on his own volition?

How would the answers affect the balance of Middle East politics? Lebanon and Libya could have been allies, but many assume they did not, not only because Qaddafi had trouble wooing many sophisticated world leaders, but also specifically because Lebanese believe Qaddafi killed al-Sadr. An answer here could lead to a more publicized trial in-absentia of Qaddafi for the crime, adding another weight around Qaddafi’s neck which will prevent him from getting help from the Arab world to stay in power.

But more urgently for Lebanon, the answer to al-Sadr’s death could provide either closure on a long-open wound which would be a good thing or, unfortunately, indicate that another party in the region – some suggest Syria or Hezbollah – staffed out the killing to Libya.

Even though the al-Sadr mystery happened years ago, it could blow up today because the UN -backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon is preparing to publicize an indictment alleging who killed Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Many believe Syria and Hezbollah will be implicated in the Hariri killing. If they are also implicated in the al-Sadr killing from years ago, the opposition may try to use it against them in current politics.

With luck, all parties will see the end of the mystery as a means of finding closure alone.

Image: Photo of Sadr poster by Bertramz / Wikimedia Commons.

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