US puts positive spin on Lebanon deal

Bush administration says deal is vital to short-term stability; reiterates support for Lebanese PM Saniora.

Hizbullah march 224.88 (photo credit: )
Hizbullah march 224.88
(photo credit: )
The Bush administration sought Wednesday to put a positive spin on a deal between Lebanon's feuding factions, which it says is vital to short-term stability even though it gives the militant Hizbullah movement more power. "We view this agreement as a positive step toward resolving the current crisis," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement released before she called embattled Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to express US support for his government. "We call upon all Lebanese leaders to implement this agreement in its entirety." In a hastily convened news conference called to discuss the developments, the top US diplomat for the Middle East acknowledged that the Arab-mediated Lebanon agreement, which boosts Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah and gives it veto power over any government decision, is imperfect. He welcomed it, however, as a "necessary and positive" step to end violence and the country's political crisis. Lebanon has been paralyzed for the past 18 months, with the selection of a new president blocked. Deadly street fighting erupted in Beirut this month when Hizbullah gunmen took over parts of the capital. "This is not a perfect solution, but it is much better than the alternatives," said David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "It's a necessary and positive step," he said, adding quickly: "It's not for us to decide how Lebanon does this." He said the United States wants to see the agreement implemented as quickly as possible with election of a president, the formation of a new government and revisions to the country's electoral law ahead of a parliamentary vote set for next year. Welch stressed that Washington supports the majority in the Lebanese government and noted that the previous government included Hizbullah members with whom the United States had no dealings. The same principle would apply now, although under the deal, Hizbullah will have 11 seats in the Cabinet out of 30. That is almost double its representation in the Cabinet before the deal. Welch also played down the implications of the effusive praise for the deal offered by Iran and Syria immediately after it was announced in Qatar, which raised fears the two U.S. foes may now have even more influence in Lebanon. "There are a number of governments who acclaimed this," Welch said. "If Syria and Iran have supported that, then perhaps they will continue to exercise a more constructive role in Lebanon. We would like to see that. It would come as a bit of a surprise to us, but results are what count."