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Rice makes surprise visit to Lebanon

U.S. secretary of state supports ousting of Syrian influence

From Elise Labott
CNN

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit Thursday to Beirut, where anti-Syrian leaders have been working to oust Lebanon's pro-Syrian president.

Rice's itinerary included meetings with government officials -- but not with President Emile Lahoud.

"My view is that the United States ought to be supporting the pro-Lebanese governments," she told reporters.

An effort is under way within the Lebanese parliament to introduce measures to oust Lahoud from office by the middle of next month.

While she did not call for Lahoud's ouster, Rice said the Lebanese people "need a presidency that looks forward, not back, and that defends Lebanese sovereignty."

Asked if the Lebanese would be better off without Lahoud, she said, "The Lebanese people will have to decide what the obstacles are to their progress. But I do think they want to look forward."

Rice met with newly elected Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Socialist Party of Lebanon; and Saad Hariri, the son of the slain prime minister and his political heir.

She said that U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the end to Syrian influence in Lebanon, needed to be implemented, and she added that the militant Islamic group Hezbollah should be disarmed.

Rice said it was "time to reiterate and to affirm the firm support of the United States of America for the Lebanese people as they work to have a fully sovereign and democratic Lebanon."

The U.S. diplomat's trip comes a little more than a year after the killing of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was working to limit Syrian influence on Lebanese politics when his motorcade was bombed in Beirut.

His death sparked massive anti-Syrian demonstrations -- the so-called Cedar Revolution -- that swept Syrian troops out of the country last year, though U.S. officials contend that Damascus is still attempting to exert influence in Lebanon.

The U.N. investigation into Hariri's death has found evidence suggesting top-ranked Syrian and Lebanese officials were involved in Hariri's killing. The probe also has criticized the level of cooperation by Syrian officials.

Before her Beirut stop, Rice met with Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. She told reporters she was planning to discuss a Saudi-Egyptian initiative to further Syrian cooperation with the U.N. inquiry.

They are a "common voice urging complete and total cooperation with the investigation and, I think, everybody is exactly on the same page with that," she said.

Rice called for Syria to cooperate fully with the United Nations in its investigation and laid out an optimistic view of the Middle East.

"In place after place, people are doing what they must do, which is taking the choices before them and having a chance to elect those who are going to govern them," she said.

"Every population, every person in the Middle East deserves that chance and Syria is no different. And I hope that one day Syrians will have that opportunity. The United States is supportive of those who are trying to build that kind of Syria."

At a news conference, Siniora said he "appreciated the show of patience that Secretary Rice has been showing to Lebanon," an apparent reference to the deliberate pace of the U.N. investigation.

Rice's five-hour visit in Beirut comes during a tour of several Arab countries this week to push for political reform and democratization.

Her next stop is the United Arab Emirates, where she's expected to reassure government officials that the White House backs a deal that would allow Dubai Ports World to administer security at six U.S. ports. The deal faces bipartisan opposition in Congress, with lawmakers raising concerns that a UAE-owned venture could make U.S. ports more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

"We have a really strong ally in the UAE," she said. "This is a thoroughly vetted deal and, if more details [are] needed to be made available, I think they will be. I think the deal itself is simply a recognition that the process turned up no concerns."

Also on her agenda: a meeting with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in hopes of increasing pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

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