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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday the United States would support Lebanon's government through the current upheaval, but urged it to move toward full independence from Syria and the disarming of militia groups such as the terror group Hizbullah.
Speaking to reporters at the end of surprise visit to Lebanon, Rice said the government was going through a period of transition. The country is divided over moves to oust the pro-Syrian president and who is to be blamed for last year's assassination of the popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
"I'm quite certain that this period is going to produce a more democratic Lebanon that is fully in compliance with (U.N. Security Council) resolution 1559 in all of its aspects, and one that is determined that there should not be foreign influences nor influences of violence," she said.
The resolution, which was passed in September 2004, demanded an end to Syrian political interference in Lebanon and the disarming of militia - a reference to the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbullah and Palestinian fighters. Hizbullah, which has two ministers in the Cabinet, has refused to disarm.
Rice said she came to Lebanon "to affirm the firm support of the United States of America for the Lebanese people as they work to have a fully sovereign, democratic Lebanon."
In a visit of several hours, Rice met Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and leaders of the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, but she did not meet President Emile Lahoud, a staunch ally of Syria.
She did not back the call for Lahoud to step down, but told reporters at a joint press conference with Saniora that "it's up to the Lebanese to decide who is going to govern this country." Saniora is pursuing a policy of cautiously distancing Lebanon from Syria.
Earlier, Rice told reporters accompanying her that the Lebanese "need a presidency that looks forward, not back, and that defends Lebanese sovereignty."
Rice said Syria must give its "full cooperation" in the U.N. investigation of the Hariri assassination, a probe led by the Belgian prosecutor, Serge Brammertz.
"Full cooperation means that the Syrians should cooperate in whatever way the investigator, Mr. Brammertz, deems necessary," she said.
The U.N. Security Council has twice accused Syria of failing to cooperate fully with the inquiry, which has implicated Syrian intelligence officials. Syria has rejected the investigation's findings and claims it is cooperating fully.
Rice met Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik and leader of the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, and the Druse political leader Walid Jumblatt. The two men have played key roles in the campaigns against Syrian influence and President Lahoud.
She also met Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the spiritual leader of the influential Maronite Catholic Church whom she described as a strong voice calling for freedom and democracy.
Lahoud is a Maronite, as all presidents have to be under the sectarian system of power sharing, and the views of the church's patriarch on the campaign to remove the president would be significant.
Rice is on the second day of a Middle East tour. She spent Wednesday in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two key players in Arab attempts to mediate between Lebanon and Syria whose relations deteriorated severely after Hariri's assassination last year. She left Beirut on Thursday afternoon for the United Arab Emirates.
There were plans for a protest against Rice, and one against Lahoud during Thursday's Cabinet meeting, which he was expected to chair, but they were apparently called off after last-minute contacts among various political factions.
Lebanese troops staked out the highways that Rice was expected to travel in Beirut and police removed parked vehicles from her route.
The anti-Syrian alliance has been holding mass rallies and trying to mobilize the public against Lahoud, whom it regards as a Syrian-imposed president. Parliamentary efforts to remove him have begun.
There have also been pro-Syrian calls for counter-demonstrations, posing the threat of clashes and a slide into violence.
Lahoud, who has refused to step down, warned Monday that "security is a red line," implicitly hinting at the use of force against demonstrators.
Rice was optimistic that Lebanon could handle the political conflict in a peaceful manner.
"I think Lebanon will resolve the situation in ways that are consistent with Lebanon's desire to be a democracy in which all can participate," she said.
Lahoud's term was extended by three years in September 2004 when the parliament, then dominated by pro-Syrian legislators, amended the constitution to prolong his tenure rather than elect a new president.
Hariri's death provoked mass demonstrations against Syria, as he was seen as a quiet opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Combined with international pressure, the protests led to a Syrian withdrawal of troops from Lebanon last April, ending a 29-year military presence in the country.
However, the United States and Lebanese opponents of Syria accuse it of continuing to meddle in Lebanon. Pro-Syrian groups claim that Washington is interfering.
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