By BENNY AVNI – Staff Reporter of the Sun, UNITED NATIONS – The Arab League’s secretary-general, Amre Moussa, tried recently to mediate between Syria and Lebanon, reportedly offering to end a Syrian assassination campaign against Lebanese journalists and politicians. Diplomats and editorialists in the region said over the weekend that the effort, which was perceived in Lebanon as an attempt to defend Syria, backfired and highlighted the league’s weaknesses.

Yesterday, Mr. Moussa officially denied ever relating a Syrian offer to end assassinations in Lebanon. Reports in the Lebanese press over the weekend were "completely unfounded," Mr. Moussa said in a statement, denying that upon arriving from Damascus in mid-December he relayed an offer that Syria would completely cease an assassination campaign if the Lebanese government ignores U.N. Security Council resolution 1559 and ends its support of the U.N. probe into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

A deal that would conceal the truth in this affair was never even considered," Mr. Moussa’s official statement said.

Resolution 1559 demands a withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon, a cessation of foreign interference in its affairs, and the disarming of all militias. Last week, the mandate of the international team investigating the February 14 Hariri murder was extended until June.

Many in the politically split country were unconvinced by Mr. Moussa’s denial. "Most of the press and the politicians in this side [of the political divide] believe he made" the offer, a Beirut-based national correspondent for the English-language newspaper Daily Star, Majdoline Hatoum, told The New York Sun yesterday.

Mr. Moussa’s recent two-day trip to Damascus and Beirut struck a sour note with Lebanese pro-independence forces from the start, as his visit coincided with the funeral of a slain outspoken anti-Syrian politician and journalist, Gibran Tueni.

"Moussa wants to create a federation of countries with tyrannical regimes to protect Syria," Tueni’s father, Ghassan Tueni, said on Friday, while attending a church service, according to a newspaper owned by the Tueni family, An-Nahar.

"Amre Moussa must go to Damascus to stop the murders in Lebanon," a Druze leader and member of parliament Walid Jumblatt, who has become one of the toughest critics of Damascus in Lebanon, said.

"The Syrian regime has chosen to shelter behind Arab initiatives in order to avoid [compliance] with the international probe" into the Hariri murder, Mr. Jumblatt added during an interview with the Lebanese satellite channel LBCI, according to translation by a French newswire service, Agence France-Presse. "The terrorist Syrian regime is carrying out political assassinations in order to shut up the [anti-Syrian] parliamentary majority."

Pro-Syrian politicians and editorialists in Lebanon and others in the Arab world were less critical. "We fear that this campaign against Mr. Moussa will destroy what has remained of the Arab League, the only entity that still impersonates the bare minimum of the bare minimum of Arab unity," the Palestinian Arab-owned, London-based newspaper, Al Quds Al Arabi, said in an editorial yesterday. Mr. Moussa "is working hard and has pure intentions and is caring over the nation" of Lebanon, the editorial said.

"The Arab League is in a tight spot," an Arab diplomat who asked not to be identified told the Sun yesterday. More accustomed to issuing statements that its 22 members can easily unite behind, specifically against Israel, it now finds itself in the middle of a dispute between two of its founding members.

While a leader like Mr. Moussa should "find a way" to mediate between Lebanon and Syria, the diplomat said, the league has lost a lot of its power and credibility in recent years. Mr. Moussa, who is entering his last year as secretary-general, is trying to revive some of its past prestige, but as the Lebanese response over the weekend showed, it could be hard to accomplish.

A revival of its old role also might be difficult to achieve since the league relies on internationally discredited officials, he said, pointing specifically to those from Sudan.

Yesterday, Mr. Moussa announced the appointment of a former Sudanese foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, as the league’s top envoy for the upcoming interfaith conference of Iraqi factions, scheduled to take place in Baghdad in March. Mr. Ismail was the international face of the Sudanese government for much of the Darfur crisis, which was described by the American government as genocide.

Prior to Mr. Moussa’s trip to Lebanon and Syria, Mr. Ismail told the London-based, pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that the Arab League supported the Hariri investigation "without using [it] as a pretext to target Syria."