Lebanese changes get US backing
Rice welcomes power-sharing arrangement
BEIRUT - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday she welcomes a new power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon even though it increased the power of Hezbollah militants at the expense of US-backed moderates.
"Obviously in any compromise there are compromises," Rice said during a surprise visit to meet Lebanon's new consensus choice for president. The election of former Army chief Michel Suleiman last month is the clearest sign that Lebanon stepped back from the brink and that the deal with Iranian-backed Hezbollah is taking hold.
Hezbollah's ascendancy is a bitter pill for the United States, which is worried that Iran's influence is spreading in the Middle East and had spent millions backing the Lebanese government for three years.
Rice's blessing is a sign that the Bush administration has accepted that Western-backed democratic leaders who helped Lebanon throw off three decades of Syrian domination could not govern the country alone. Lebanese politics operate on ambiguity and consensus, and in this case that meant giving veto power to Hezbollah, a militia and political force that the United States lists as a terrorist group.
"This was an agreement that I think served the interests of the Lebanese people," Rice said. "And since it served the interests of the Lebanese people, it served the interests of the United States. We support the democratically elected government of Lebanon."
Rice pleased her hosts by announcing US backing for a new diplomatic push to resolve Lebanon's land dispute with Israel.
"The time has come to deal with the Shebaa Farms issue," Rice said, referring to the patch of land where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.
The US envoy said the dispute should be settled with United Nations help. Rice did not respond when a reporter asked what pressure the United States would apply to Israel to relinquish the land it captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Lebanon claims the area and an Israeli withdrawal would give the Lebanese government a strong pretext to ask Hezbollah to lay down its arms. However, senior Hezbollah officials have repeatedly said that an Israeli withdrawal is not enough to justify disarming.
Political bickering prevented parliament from electing a president 19 times, leaving the country without a president since pro-Syrian holdover Emile Lahoud left office in November. The Hezbollah-led opposition hamstrung the US-backed government and, for a time, kept Prime Minister Fuad Saniora under siege in his office.
The power-sharing pact will probably allow Saniora to keep his job.
Rice saw Saniora, along with most of the other major players in Lebanon's complex religious- and sectarian-aligned political system during a few hours of meetings held under heavy security. She was the first high-level US official to visit since the 18-month political crisis eased.
The standoff erupted into deadly street violence last month when Saniora's coalition tried to take political steps against Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons. The government backed down after the Shi'te militant group demonstrated its military power.
Gunmen overran large parts of Muslim west Beirut in a show of force that left 67 people dead. It was the worst violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, and raised fears that a new war was imminent.
Although the violence gave Hezbollah new political leverage, the United States contends it has provoked a backlash against Hezbollah among many Lebanese who cannot stomach the group's use of force against fellow Lebanese.
"I know it has been a struggle for Lebanon to get to the election of its president," Rice said after her session with Suleiman.
"I come away knowing that Lebanon has elected a very fine man," Rice told reporters. "We look forward to working with him."