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(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush called Lebanon's leader Wednesday to express his dismay at the assassination of a cabinet minister, a slaying that heightened anxiety in the Middle East and complicated Bush's meeting in the region next week with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The United States denounced the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the minister of industry and a strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, as an act of terrorism. Bush accused Syria and Iran of trying to undermine the young, democratically elected government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, which is being challenged by the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.
"President Bush reiterated to Prime Minister Saniora the unwavering commitment of the United States to help build Lebanese democracy and to support Lebanese independence from the encroachments of Iran and Syria," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.
As the situation in Lebanon seemed to worsen, the White House announced that Bush would go to Jordan next week to talk to al-Maliki about how to speed up the transfer of security responsibilities to the Iraqis.
National security adviser Stephen Hadley said the two leaders would hear from a joint commission they set up to identify ways to strengthen Iraqi security forces and to improve the Iraqi government's control over them.
"The situation in Iraq is very serious," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Wednesday. "That's why it's important that we continue to have discussions with the Iraqi government on how best we can all move forward together, and that's why it's important the president will be meeting Prime Minister al-Maliki next week."
Bush's visit with al-Maliki, an attempt to reassert US influence in the region, could help the president show that he has not lost control of the situation in Iraq to neighboring Syria and Iran, both of whom the United States has accused of meddling in Baghdad's affairs. This week, Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic ties after nearly a quarter-century, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani agreed to meet in Tehran with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Al-Maliki visited the United States in late July, a month after Bush made an unannounced trip to Baghdad. Amman, Jordan, was viewed as a less dangerous location than Baghdad for the coming meeting.
The get-together on Wednesday and Thursday was announced after Iran announced Ahmedinejad's plan to host Talabani and a Syrian President Bashar Assad this weekend. The invitation was seen as an attempt to upstage expected US moves to enlist Syria and Iran in tackling the chaos in Iraq. While Talabani said he would attend, Assad is sending a representative.
Damascus denies involvement in the killing of Gemayel, but US officials suspect a Syrian connection. Bush expressed his condolences in telephone calls to both the Lebanese prime minister and to former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, father of the slain cabinet minister.
The United States has accused Syria and Iran of plotting to topple Saniora's fragile government, which is dominated by politicians opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon. The slaying of Gemayel was the fifth murder of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon in two years.
Meanwhile, an independent panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican close to the Bush family, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton is being prepared for release with recommendations on US options in Iraq. The proposals are expected to include openings to Syria and Iran in a bid to internationalize efforts to control the sectarian conflict.
Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland, said the United States and Syria are engaged in a "delicate dance."
"It's going to be very complicated because you're likely to have a real crisis in Lebanon intensifying over the next few weeks, and that's going to overshadow, I think, what the president was hoping Syria would do on Iraq," Telhami said.
He said the United States does not want Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi cooperation without US involvement.
Jon Alterman, an export on the region at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he sees an outside chance the administration would step up contact with Syria, but in the end it would decide against it, partly because of US anger about Syria's role in Lebanon.
"I think the administration was going to be under some pressure to open some sort of dialogue," Alterman said. "It seems to me that the assassination makes it less likely."