Rice pays surprise visit to Lebanon | VailDaily.com

Rice pays surprise visit to Lebanon

Daily Staff Report

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a surprise visit Friday to a city wracked by terror and political unrest, welcomed Lebanon’s advances in democracy and signaled to Syria that it should stay out of its volatile neighbor’s internal politics.A loud explosion was heard in Beirut hours after Rice left the city, but it was not clear whether there was any connection to her visit. Witnesses said the blast went off in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of the capital filled with restaurants.Rice met officials from the new government that emerged from a season of political change following February’s car-bomb assassination of an anti-Syrian politician, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria withdrew some 14,000 troops from Lebanon in April under international pressure, ending three decades of military and political domination over its much smaller neighbor.”The new Lebanon is one that is democratic,” Rice said. “The new Lebanon is one that should be free of foreign influence. It is a Lebanon in which Lebanese should make decisions for the Lebanese.”The Bush administration has made the expansion of democracy in the Middle East a centerpiece of its second-term diplomacy, and cites the changes in Lebanon as a democratic headwind in the region.Anti-Syrian candidates won election in June, and a new Cabinet was announced in Beirut this week. That gave Rice an opening to visit and congratulate the new leadership, although she was also obligated to meet with the current pro-Syrian president of Lebanon, who will keep his job for two years in the new government.Progress has been interrupted by periodic violence, including the assassination of a second anti-Syrian figure this spring and an attack on a pro-Syrian politician.Rice visited the flower-laden tomb of Hariri, whose likeness appears everywhere on posters and banners in Beirut, and met with Hariri’s son and political successor, Saad Hariri.Rice’s motorcade also slowed at the seaside site of the bombing that killed Hariri.Huge street protests followed Hariri’s killing, along with a rising chorus of demands for Syria to leave.Already on poor terms with Damascus, the United States withdrew its ambassador after the killing and said Syria bore responsibility for destabilizing Lebanon. Washington did not blame Syria directly for the killing, but anti-Syrian politicians make that charge. Syria denies it.”We would like to see the day when there are good neighborly relations between Syria and Lebanon based on mutual respect and equality,” Rice said in a joint news conference with Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Fuad Saniora.”But good neighbors don’t close their borders to their neighbors,” she said of tightened Syria security measures that have delayed or stranded thousands of Lebanese vehicles at the two countries’ border. Syria denies that the border measures are a retaliation after its withdrawal from Lebanon.”It is a very serious situation on the Lebanon border, where Lebanese trade is being strangled,” Rice said.Saniora, who announced his new Cabinet on Tuesday after three weeks of bargaining, said Lebanon wants good relations with Syria and must also forge unity among its own political factions.”This will require understanding and patience,” Saniora said.The United States will work with the new government but not with any members of Hezbollah, the militant group that Washington calls a terror organization. One Cabinet minister is a Hezbollah member, and there are others with pro-Syrian ties.”The United States has a long-standing policy toward Hezbollah that has a history to it, that has a history of blood to it, and that has not changed,” Rice said.No U.S. secretary of state has visited Lebanon since Colin Powell in June 2003, when Syria was sill firmly entrenched there. The United States led a United Nations demand last year that Syria pull forces from Lebanon and stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.Syria initially ignored the demand but now says it has withdrawn all forces and security agents. The United States says some security agents remain.—On the Net:State Department: http://www.state.govCIA Factbook on Lebanon: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/le.html

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