BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged support Thursday for the Lebanese government as it strives to cautiously distance itself from Syria, which has dominated the country for most of the past three decades.
“It’s up to the Lebanese to decide who is going to govern this country,” Rice told a press conference after talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora.
Speaking hours after arriving on a surprise visit to Beirut, Rice said Syria must give “full cooperation” to the U.N. investigation into last year’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The U.N. Security Council has twice accused Syria of failing to cooperate fully with the inquiry, which has implicated Syrian intelligence officials. Syria has rejected the investigation’s findings and claims it is cooperating fully.
Rice came to Lebanon as tensions rise over attempts by anti-Syrian legislators, who command a majority in parliament, to oust pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.
Rice, who will not meet Lahoud during the visit, has told reporters accompanying her that the Lebanese “need a presidency that looks forward, not back, and that defends Lebanese sovereignty.”
Earlier she said the United States “ought to be supporting the pro-Lebanese government.”
Asked if Lahoud is an obstacle to that progress, Rice replied: “The Lebanese people will have to decide what the obstacles to their progress are, but I think they do want to look forward.”
Rice is on the second day of a Middle East tour. She spent Wednesday in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two key players in Arab attempts to mediate between Lebanon and Syria whose relations deteriorated severely after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year.
Pro-Syrian groups were expected to protest against Rice’s visit, while anti-Syrian factions planned to demonstrate against Lahoud during Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, which he is expected to chair.
Lebanese troops staked out the highways that Rice was expected to travel in Beirut and police removed parked vehicles from her route.
Soon after her arrival, Rice met Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the spiritual leader of the influential Maronite Catholic Church whom she described as a strong voice calling for freedom and democracy.
Lahoud is a Maronite, as all presidents have to be under the sectarian system of power sharing, and the views of the church’s patriarch on the campaign to remove the president would be significant.
In brief remarks to reporters after the meeting at Bkirki in the mountains northeast of Beirut, Rice stressed the United States would continue to support Lebanon and said Washington looked forward to the day when the country was free of threats and lived in peace.
Sfeir has cautioned against removing the president through street protests and before an agreement has been reached on a replacement.
The anti-Syrian alliance has been holding mass rallies and trying to mobilize the public against Lahoud, whom it regards as a Syrian-imposed president.
Lahoud’s term was extended by three years in September 2004 when the parliament, then dominated by pro-Syrian legislators, amended the constitution to prolong his tenure rather than elect a new president.
Lahoud, who has refused to step down, warned Monday that “security is a red line,” implicitly hinting at the use of force against demonstrators.
Rice is expected to meet leaders of the anti-Syrian majority in parliament.
The secretary of state last visited Lebanon on July 22. Hours later a bomb exploded on a Beirut street, wounding about a dozen people. Lebanon has been plagued by a series of bombings during the past year that have often targeted anti-Syrian personalities. Nobody has been charged for the attacks and the government has acknowledged that it is nowhere close to arresting the culprits.
A U.N. committee investigating the killing of Hariri by a massive truck bomb on Feb. 14, 2005, has issued interim reports that implicated senior officials in Syrian and Lebanese intelligence. While Lebanon welcomed the reports, Syria rejected them and said they were politically motivated.
Hariri’s death provoked mass demonstrations against Syria, as he was seen as a quiet opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Combined with international pressure, the protests led to Syria’s withdrawing its troops from Lebanon last April, ending a 29 year military presence in the country.
However, Lebanese opponents of Syria accuse it of continuing to meddle and point to the subsequent bombings that killed or maimed anti-Syrian journalists and politicians.
The United States also claims that Syrian intelligence agents remain in Lebanon and that Damascus is still interfering in Lebanese politics.