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U.S. Navy ships move closer to Lebanon

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. Navy makes move amid a political standoff over Lebanon's presidency
  • The presence is important," says chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Lebanon's pro-Western majority in parliament struggles with pro-Syrian opposition
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From Mike Mount
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Navy has moved the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole and other ships to the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

A file image of the USS Cole, which the U.S. Navy moved to the Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon.

The deployment comes amid a political standoff over Lebanon's presidency, but the Navy would not say whether the events are linked.

"It's a group of ships that will operate in the vicinity for a while and as the ships in our Navy do, the presence is important," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday.

"It isn't meant to send any stronger signal than that," he said. "But it does signal that we're engaged and we are going to be in the vicinity, and that's a very important part of the world."

The Cole was badly damaged by an al Qaeda bombing during a port call in Yemen in 2000, killing 17 sailors. It returned to service in 2002.

The destroyer and two support ships are close to Lebanon but out of visual range of the coast, Pentagon officials said. Another six vessels, led by the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau, are close to Italy and steaming toward the other three, the officials said.

Mullen would not say whether the deployment has anything to do with the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary vote on a new president, which was postponed for a 15th time earlier this week. But he said the vote was "important," and Washington was waiting for it to take place.

And a Bush administration official told CNN the decision to move ships to the region was a message to neighboringSyria that "the U.S. is concerned about the situation in Lebanon, and we want to see the situation resolved."

"We are sending a clear message for the need for stability," said the official, who was not authorized to speak for publication. The ships "should be there a while," the official added.

Lebanon's pro-Western majority in parliament and the pro-Syrian opposition have battled for power over the last three years. The country has been without a president since November, when pro-Syrian leader Emile Lahoud's term expired and parliament was unable to agree on a replacement.

Despite general agreement among the factions to award the post to army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman, disagreements over how to share power in a future Cabinet have kept the issue from coming up for a vote.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri's office announced Tuesday that the next planned session has been pushed back to March 11. Berri's office said the Arab League needed more time to break the deadlock.

Lebanon has been wracked by a sometimes-violent power struggle since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose supporters blamed Damascus for his killing. The resulting outcry eventually drove Syrian forces out of Lebanon, where they had been stationed since the 1970s. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN Correspondent Zain Verjee contributed to this report.

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