Rice Seeks To Bolster Fragile Government In Lebanon

Tuesday, June 26th 2007, 7:10 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Tuesday to signal support for his fragile democratically elected government.

``We have great admiration for the leadership of Prime Minister Saniora and his democratically elected government, which is a government that is working on behalf of all the Lebanese people for democracy and for freedom,'' Rice said afterward.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice emphasized to Saniora in their meeting ``our continued support as the government confronts the threat posed by violent extremism.''

Rice's morning meeting with Saniora wrapped up her two-day visit to Paris.

Saniora was to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy later in the day as Rice headed back to Washington.

Prior to her meeting with Saniora, Rice emphasized the importance of U.N. efforts toward a tribunal for trying the killers of slain ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, and noted the active U.S. and French roles in Lebanon in recent years.

``The United States and France, together with the international community, we're largely responsible for mobilizing the international community to get Syrian forces out, to get a tribunal to try the perpetrators of the killers of Hariri,'' Rice said on France's TF-1 television Monday night.

``We have accomplished a lot,'' she said. ``But now we are in a phase in which we need to carry through on the tribunal, in which we need to carry through on the obligations of the UN Security Council resolution that will not tolerate Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs, and to support the Saniora government.''

While in Paris, the top U.S. diplomat also huddled with other nations that have a stake in the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region on Monday, and welcomed France's new conservative-led government with a round of diplomatic meetings.

Lebanon is facing its most serious political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, with the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition locked in a fierce power struggle. Rival Lebanese politicians have not met since a national dialogue conference ended last year without agreement.

Parliament is not functioning and the government just barely, after a quarter of Cabinet members resigned. Opposition supporters have been holding a sit-in outside Saniora's office since Dec. 1, calling for his resignation and the formation of a new government.

Saniora, backed by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, the United States and the West, has refused to step down.

The Lebanese army has also been battling al-Qaida-inspired militants barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon for more than a month. Separately, the country is still fixing the damage inflicted by Israeli bombers in last year's war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah guerrillas based in Lebanon.

The political crisis has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone and has erupted into street clashes between supporters of pro- and anti-government factions in recent months, killing 11 people.

Violence and fratricide have followed each of three U.S.-backed elections in the Middle East in the past three years _ in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. On Sunday, Rice acknowledged the bad news.

``Yeah, it's really hard,'' she said. ``It's hard for democracy to take hold in a place where it has not taken hold before, but I am confident about the triumph of these values because I've seen it before.''

Rice and her boss, President Bush, take the long view in arguing that history will bear out their commitment to spreading democracy in the Middle East.

``There is nothing wrong with the people of the Middle East,'' Rice said Sunday. ``They can triumph and triumph democratically.''

In January, Rice announced a tripling of U.S. aid to Lebanon to nearly $770 million to help Saniora's fragile democratic government.

The donation would include $220 million in military aid for the beleaguered Western-backed Saniora government. The money could buy small arms, ammunition, spare parts and Humvees, U.S. officials said.

The head of the Arab League failed to bring Lebanon's feuding leaders together in four days of talks in Beirut last week.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the country's factions must meet to hash out a national unity government and discuss election of a new president to succeed President Emile Lahoud, whose term expires in November. He also said the sides must work to preserve Lebanon's security and stability in the face of a spate of bombings and assassinations.