02/24/2006, 00.00
LEBANON
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Rice in Lebanon: pressure on Syria and for Lahoud deposition

by Jihad Issa

Damascus is talking about an "international plot", accusing France and the USA, defending Hezbollah and further strengthening ties with Iran.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – "A prelude to the deposition of the filo-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, and the application of the UN Resolution 1559". This is how political analysts in Lebanon and the Middle East interpret the unexpected visit of the US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, to Beirut yesterday. Meanwhile, in Damascus, there was immediate talk of an "international plot" and links with Iran are being welded.

Resolution 1559, adopted by the United Nations more than a year ago, calls for the disarming of the Hezbollah, the Shi'ite group linked to Syria and Iran. Observers say talks held by Rice with many political and religious authorities in Beirut and the fact they excluded President Lahoud, provided a further opportunity to "press on Syria".

The Syrian press agency, Sana, considers the visit of Rice as part of an "international plot, geared towards bringing Syria to its knees, after the positive development marked by sincere collaboration of Damascus with the new president of the UN International Commission of Inquiry, Serge Brammertz, who had many fruitful meetings with Syrian leaders". Yesterday Brammertz was in Damascus for meetings with Syrian authorities about investigations into the murder of the former Lebanese premier, Rafic Hariri, on 14 February 2005.

Sana blames France and the United States for Lebanon's difficult position and confirms the stand of the Syrian government to remain by the side of "Lebanese and Iranian friends, describing as a 'false hypothesis' the support expressed by the US Secretary for the Lebanese population". The move has been seen as interference in the internal affairs of an independent state and member of the United Nations, and the agency called on "free" Lebanese not to let down the hopes of many "friends of Lebanon".

On its pages, Sana reported criticisms leveled by the Secretary General of the Party of God, Hassan Nassrallah, about the visit of Rice: "You must not believe what Rice says in front of everyone, you must be well informed, instead, about what she said to the authorities." Nasrallah then went on to criticize the approach of the US minister with regard to President Lahoud, who remains a state symbol. The Syrian agency once again launched criticisms against Saad Hariri, Walid Joumblatt, and the commander of the Lebanese forces, Samir Geagea, who "has become dependent on his patrons, after 11 years of imprisonment which he deserved", for he was responsible for the murder of the Maronite Christian leader, Dany Chamoud, son of the former president, Camille, with his wife and daughter, and the murder of the former premier Rachid Karame.

"I have already met Lahoud in the past," said Rice. "My message was that it is his responsibility, as president of Lebanon, to be concerned about the situation in the country." Before stopping over in Beirut, the US Secretary of State was in Cairo and Riyad. "The scope of the mission is that of expressing support to the Lebanese and the government in their efforts to seek to fully recover their sovereignty and to reform the country," she told the press. In Bkerke, Rice met the Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir. Later, in Beirut, it was the turn of the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, and of Saad Hariri, son of the slain ex premier, who leads the parliamentary majority. After that, came the parliament speaker, the Shi'ite Nabih Berri, Michel Aoun, and finally the premier, Fouad Siniora.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Syria and Iran signed a series of trade agreements, to which they added the commitment to create a Syro-Iranian bank in Damascus and the opening of road and train links, as well as oleoducts, between the two countries. The series of agreements must be seen in the context of ever stronger links between the two states, which are under international pressure. In a joint press conference, the Syrian prime minister, Naji Otari, and the Iranian vice-president, Parviz Davoudi, described ties as a "strategic and profound relationship, rooted in the history of the two countries, founded on cultural, civil and historical patrimony and on the desire of both peoples to expand the space for their collaboration." On the same occasion, Damascus reiterated its "support for the Iranian right to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.""

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