emile lahoud 298 88ap.
(photo credit: AP)
The Bush administration has quietly opened a new diplomatic front in its efforts to free Lebanon from Syrian influence, with a move to undermine the authority of the country's pro-Syria president.
The behind-the-scenes campaign began to bear fruit last month when the US State Department sought and won the replacement of Lebanon's ambassador to the United States, Farid Abboud, an ally of President Emile Lahoud who had served in Washington for eight years, officials said.
The Lebanese foreign ministry, run by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's Western-backed government, transferred Abboud to Tunisia and chose career diplomat Antoine Chedid to succeed him in Washington. But Lahoud, the country's head of state, has refused to sign Chedid's letter of accreditation, meaning he is not considered an ambassador.
On Thursday, though, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took the unusual step of inviting Chedid to her office to personally welcome him to the United States, effectively recognizing the diplomat as Lebanon's ambassador, although his official title is Charge d'Affaires.
"It's good to receive you on behalf of the democratic government of Lebanon," Rice said in comments seen as a slight to Lahoud and Abboud, whom the administration had snubbed for years. "I am sure we will have very close contacts because the United States is and wants
to be a friend of a free and sovereign Lebanon."
Chedid, who has previously served in Washington and is well-known and admired as a professional here, replied by making clear he represents Saniora's embattled government and that he was honored by his reception since arriving in late July.
Washington has long sought to bolster Saniora and reduce Syria's role in Lebanon. Earlier this month, President George W. Bush signed an executive order letting the US freeze the assets of anyone deemed to be working to destabilize efforts to promote Lebanese security and sovereignty.
An official with the Lebanese Embassy declined to discuss the circumstances of Chedid's appointment but noted that the envoy already held the rank of ambassador in Lebanon's foreign service and that matters of protocol would not interfere with his mission.
In addition to Rice, Chedid met Thursday with the top US diplomat for the Middle East, David Welch, and Iraq coordinator David Satterfield, both of whom he knows from previous jobs. He will also soon see Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley, officials said.
One US official familiar with the situation said the slew of high-level meetings accorded Chedid is intended as both a signal of support for Saniora's government and a diplomatic slap in the face to Lahoud, whose term in office is due to end in November.