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Rice backs Lebanese leaders in Cabinet struggle

  • Story Highlights
  • In unannounced visit, U.S. secretary of state meets with Lebanon's new president
  • Lebanese leaders, Hezbollah-led opposition in dispute over Cabinet composition
  • Rice's visit comes after weekend talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday expressed U.S. support for the Lebanese government's attempts to move past political differences with the Hezbollah-led opposition.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Lebanon's president in an unannounced trip to Beirut.

Rice, who arrived in Beirut unannounced Monday morning following a weekend visit to Israel and the West Bank, met with Lebanon's newly elected president, Michel Sleiman. Lebanon's Western-backed government and the opposition have been arguing over key ministerial appointments.

"I have expressed on behalf of President Bush and on behalf of the American people, our desire to support Lebanon, its government, its democratic institutions, and its people in building a fully sovereign, a peaceful Lebanon, and a Lebanon that is prosperous and democratic for all of its people," Rice told reporters at Lebanon's presidential palace.

Rice also was expected to meet with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, an ally of the United States.

In May, Lebanon's parliament elected army chief Sleiman as the nation's 12th president, filling a six-month vacancy created by the November departure of President Emile Lahoud. The parliament had tried 19 times to vote on a new president but failed because of disagreements over how to share power in a new Cabinet.

The government and its Hezbollah-led opposition eventually reached a deal, ending an 18-month political crisis that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

That agreement, reached in Doha, Qatar, under the mediation of an Arab League committee, paved the way for the presidential election.

"The United States has welcomed the Doha agreement as a good first step for Lebanon in resolving what was a longstanding crisis that frankly had gone on too long," Rice said Monday.

But Lebanon's two rival political factions have yet to resolve their disagreements on the composition of a new Cabinet.

Hezbollah has been linked to numerous terrorist attacks against American, Israeli and other Western targets. The United States lists it as a terrorist organization, but many in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East -- particularly Shiites -- view Hezbollah militants as freedom fighters.

Rice's visit to Lebanon followed a trilateral meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Jerusalem.

Her weekend visit to Israel and the West Bank was part of a U.S. push to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to forge a peace agreement. The Bush administration has repeatedly said it believes a peace deal can be achieved by the end of this year.

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