WASHINGTON, AP-Syria has not fully withdrawn its intelligence forces from neighboring Lebanon and is interfering with elections there, perhaps even organizing political assassinations, the Bush administration alleged Friday.
U.S. officials stopped short, however, of accusing the Syrians of carrying out either of two recent political killings.
"There are reports that we have been hearing about for some time about Syrian hit lists, targeting key Lebanese public figures of various political and religious persuasion, for assassination," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
A Syrian official denied the allegations of intelligence agents in Lebanon, saying they were "nonobjective and untrue."
"All Syrian troops, of all their different divisions, have withdrawn from Lebanon, and this was verified by the United Nations," Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah told Syria”s official SANA news agency. "Lebanon is an independent and sovereign state and it alone specifies its relations with other countries."
A senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because sensitive intelligence was involved said the United States thinks reports of a hit list are credible.
The Bush administration offered no specifics, but said Syria has continued a pattern of intimidation born of nearly two decades of de facto political and military control in Lebanon. The salvo appeared aimed at asserting international disapproval of Syrian influence as Lebanese elections continue this weekend.
"We do see a pattern of the use of threat and violence to create an atmosphere of intimidation inside Lebanon," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "And we believe that that pattern of threat and intimidation is designed to try to influence the Lebanese people, as they continue their voting."
Syria”s ambassador to the United Nations accused Washington of a smear campaign and repeated his country”s contention that all its forces left Lebanon weeks ago, in compliance with a United Nations demand.
Lebanese are voting in phased parliamentary elections this month that the anti-Syrian opposition hopes will end Damascus” control of the legislature. Politicians opposed to Syrian influence won big in the first phase in Lebanon”s capital, Beirut, but Syrian-allied Hezbollah won in the second round in southern Lebanon. The process runs for another two Sundays.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is sending inspectors back to Lebanon to check reports that Syrian intelligence officials may still be operating in the country, a U.N. official said Friday.
A U.N. team monitoring Syria”s compliance on May 23 said all locations formerly used by Syria”s military intelligence apparatus were empty, and concluded that "no Syrian military intelligence personnel remain in Lebanon in known locations or in military uniform."
But Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt said Thursday that Syrian intelligence officials had been spotted in the eastern Bekaa Valley and central Lebanon.
The United States had been pressing for the U.N. team”s return.
"It”s important for the international community to send a clear message to Syria that it must stop meddling in Lebanon," McClellan said. "I think the world is watching Lebanon closely."
The United States pulled its ambassador to Syria back to Washington to protest the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February, and there are no plans for her return to Damascus.
Hariri”s murder in an bomb blast in downtown Beirut led to street demonstrations and emboldened anti-Syrian political groups in Lebanon. It also put new energy into a U.N. effort, sponsored jointly by the United States and France, to oust Syrian forces.
After ignoring the U.N. demand for months, Syria began to remove its 15,000 troops in March, ending a heavy-handed military presence that began as a peacekeeping operation in 1976. When Lebanon”s long civil war ended, Syrian troops stayed on.
It was never clear whether all the separate, often shadowy intelligence forces departed as well. Syria says it removed everyone by the end of April.
In recent weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials have suggested that intelligence forces may have stayed behind, but the administration made the charge more explicit Friday.
"What we do know is, and we have great concerns about, the continuing presence of Syrian intelligence operatives inside Lebanon," McCormack said.
In New York, Syrian U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said the U.S. accusations reflect displeasure at the results of the latest round of voting. The United States, he said, wants "to deepen differences between different Lebanese forces, and to create problems for a constructive relationship between Syria and Lebanon."