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White House warns Syria, Iran: 'Hands off' Lebanon

From Elise Labott
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration Wednesday warned the governments of Syria and Iran to stop what the White House said were efforts to topple the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The White House said it is "increasingly concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, [Hezbollah] and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government."

Syria, in a statement issued Wednesday, denied it is interfering in Lebanese politics.

The tough-worded U.S. statement was issued amid growing political tensions in Lebanon.

"We are making it clear to everyone in the region that it ought to be 'hands off' the Siniora government, and let them do their business," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters Wednesday.

The administration line comes on the heels of visits to Washington by two senior Lebanese political figures, Minister for Social Affairs Leyla Mouwad and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Lebanese diplomatic sources told CNN that in separate meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, Mouwad and Jumblatt voiced concerns that Syrian and Iranian forces are working with Hezbollah to topple the Siniora government.

Jumblatt is a vocal member of the "March 14" political movement in Lebanon, which launched the Cedar revolution that brought Siniora to power. He told CNN on Wednesday that "democracy is at risk" in a power struggle between Hezbollah and the Western-backed Siniora government.

This week parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, said he would hold talks next week on forming a national unity government.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Tuesday that the Shiite Muslim militia and its pro-Syria allies should comprise one-third of the 24-member Cabinet, effectively giving it veto power over Cabinet action.

Nasrallah warned that Hezbollah would start massive street protests against the government in an effort to paralyze the Cabinet and government institutions, which could topple the government. His comments came in an interview with Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV.

Jumblatt told CNN that for Nasrallah to make good on his ultimatum to launch street protests would be a "terrible political mistake," because it would destroy the national political consensus that currently supports Hezbollah.

"If he wants to bring his forces, his people on the ground, on the street, we can do the same," Jumblatt said. "What will happen later on, nobody knows. It is better to keep on dialoging than bringing people on the street."

The White House statement warned, "Any attempt to destabilize Lebanon's democratically elected government through such tactics as manufactured demonstrations and violence, or by physically threatening its leaders, would, at the very least, be a clear violation of Lebanon's sovereignty."

In response, the Syrian Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying it "totally dismisses these unfounded allegations" and accusing the United States of "petty politics."

"What is happening in Lebanon is a purely domestic political issue. Syria fully respects the sovereignty of Lebanon and does not interfere in its internal politics," the statement said.

"Therefore, we call on the U.S. to follow suit and to stop instigating the Lebanese people against each other and against other countries. Such actions do not help Lebanon, the U.S., or any other party in the Middle East."

Assassination tribunal at issue

Hezbollah in August declared victory in a 34-day war with Israel. Israel launched a military campaign July 12 to dislodge the Iranian-backed guerillas from southern Lebanon after militants captured two Israeli soldiers and after months of Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel.

Nasrallah said Tuesday that the process of exchanging prisoners between Israel and Hezbollah has begun with "very serious and very extensive" negotiations.

The fighting stopped for the most part after the August 14 passage of Resolution 1701 by the U.N. Security Council, which also called for the re-establishment of Lebanese government control over the area.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said Tuesday that despite progress by the Siniora government in deploying the Lebanese armed forces to the borders with Israel and Syria after the war, "We continue to be concerned that Syria and Iran are actively trying to destabilize the democratically elected government of Lebanon."

He added, "We call on Syria and Iran to abide by their obligations to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence."

Lebanon's fragile political situation has been aggravated by continued Israeli flights over Hezbollah strongholds. And this week, U.N. Mideast Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told the Security Council that the Lebanese government had reported Syria was smuggling arms into Israel, a claim Israel has been making for weeks.

Resolution 1701 called for the disarming of Hezbollah. However, Nasrallah warned in the Al-Manar interview that any attempts to disarm the group would transform the country into another Iraq or Afghanistan.

The White House statement said one of Syria's goals was to prevent the Lebanese government from establishing an international tribunal to try those accused of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Full story)

"Any such effort to sideline the tribunal will fail, however, for the international community can proceed with establishing it no matter what happens internally in Lebanon," the statement said.

Jumblatt -- who will have talks at the United Nations about the tribunal -- said that Nasrallah's main goal is to prevent the court from being established and to "defend the Syrian regime."

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Posters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and fighters killed in the war with Israel are displayed in Lebanon last month.


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