WASHINGTON, AP – President Bush promised Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Tuesday an international effort to pursue those responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister killed last year.
After meeting in the White House with Saniora, Bush said they had agreed on a need to ensure Hariri’s death is investigated fully, “and we’ll work with the international community to see that justice is done.”
Hariri died along with 22 others when a bomb blew up his limousine on a Beirut street on Feb. 14, 2005. U.N. investigators have linked Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents with the attack.
Saniora was a longtime Hariri aide. The former prime minister’s assassination triggered an upheaval on the streets of Lebanon that resulted in the final withdrawal a year ago of Syrian troops that had provided the muscle behind overarching Syrian influence in its smaller neighbor for 29 years.
“We took great joy in seeing the Cedar Revolution,” Bush said, referring to the uprising that rid Lebanon of Syrian troops but still not all Syrian influence.
“We understand that the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the street to express their desire to be free required courage, and we support the desire of the people to have a government responsive to their needs and a government that is free, truly free.”
Bush said he had no doubt that “Lebanon can serve as a great example for what is possible in the broader Middle East, that out of the tough times the country has been through will rise a state that shows that it’s possible for people of religious difference to live side-by-side in peace.”
Saniora thanked Bush for the support the United States has given Lebanon as it has tried to instill a more fully democratic system. “Lebanon has been undergoing major changes,” he said. “Lebanon has really been committing itself that we want the change to happen in a democratic and a peaceful manner, but at the same time, to really stay on course.”
Saniora earlier met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During a three-day visit, he plans meetings with several members of the Cabinet and Congress, officials of international lending institutions and Arab diplomats.
The United States strongly supports Saniora’s goal of a fully sovereign, democratic Lebanon, a point Rice made during a brief visit to Beirut two months ago. The U.S. wants to end Syrian influence in neighboring Lebanon, and Lebanese officials said Saniora shares that view.
Saniora said Tuesday he also intends to highlight the importance of U.S. assistance in “backing Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty and enabling it to recover its (occupied) Lebanese territories,” a reference to the disputed Chebaa Farms area, where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. That’s an area where Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, continues to fight Israel.
Asked whether he was hopeful the U.S. would pressure Israel to withdraw from the farms, Saniora replied: “It is not impossible, if they want to help in allowing the Lebanese government to impose its authority on all its territories.” Saniora spoke in an airplane interview with Lebanon’s leading An-Nahar daily published Tuesday.
Saniora has promised to overhaul Lebanon’s political and economic systems. The country’s economy is suffering from zero growth and a foreign debt of more than $38 billion.
Saniora is being accompanied by his ministers of finance, economy, justice and foreign affairs. After his talks here, he will travel to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Before Saniora left for Washington, Hezbollah officials warned him against making commitments to Washington regarding disarmament of the militant organization. Hezbollah disarmament is a key element of a 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution that led to the departure of Syria’s military from Lebanon.