In a new spat with the U.N. leadership, the United States, France and Britain have expressed alarm at a decision by Secretary General Kofi Annan to delay a final report on whether Syria is fully complying with a Security Council resolution calling for its withdrawal from Lebanon, according to U.S. officials and Western diplomats.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French President Jacques Chirac telephoned Annan on Monday to urge him not to agree to a request from Syrian President Bashar Assad to delay the report, arguing Damascus will think it can manipulate or delay the final phase of its pullout, the sources said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan opens a meeting of the Economic and Social Council at United Nations headquarters.
(David Karp -- AP)
"We want to see Syria's feet held to the fire, and delaying the report doesn't help us keep the fire hot," said a senior State Department official speaking anonymously because of sensitive diplomacy. "We don't see the logic in holding back the report, which is written. What we're concerned about is Assad maneuvering to give himself wiggle room, and we don't want to let Syria think it's driving the train." Rice made a "very firm" point in her conversation with Annan, the official added.
Assad made the request in a telephone conversation with Annan on Monday, and the U.N. leader agreed without consulting key Security Council members -- producing a frantic but fruitless round of diplomatic contacts to try to persuade Annan to release the report anyway, U.S. officials and Western diplomats said.
The report, written by U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, says Syria has not fully complied, particularly on withdrawal of intelligence agents in Lebanon. It also calls for a verification mission to be dispatched soon to Lebanon to make a formal assessment, according to Western diplomats who are concerned that Assad is trying to preempt the report or force it to be revised and weakened.
The diplomatic flap came as Lebanon finally formed a new government, ending a seven-week deadlock that threatened to delay national elections scheduled for next month. Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a wealthy businessman who is a personal friend of the Syrian leader, formed a caretaker government and pledged to seek the removal of senior Lebanese security chiefs with Syrian ties.
But U.S. and European officials are taking a wait-and-see position on Mikati, concerned that Syria's last-ditch maneuvering and the new Lebanese leadership could in turn hurt prospects of holding national elections on time in late May.
Syria has pledged to withdraw by April 26 and is down to 1,000 troops from about 14,000 in February, a senior Lebanese military official told the Associated Press. The main issue, however, is Syria's extensive intelligence operation in Lebanon, U.S. officials and European envoys said.
Assad asked the U.N. leader to delay the report until at least April 26. The abrupt request triggered fears in the United States and France that Syria was angling to claim a troop withdrawal and force the United Nations to accept it -- even though it would almost certainly still have an intelligence presence. The Syrian move could also undermine prospects of dispatching a verification mission, officials say. The United States and France were co-sponsors last August of Resolution 1559, calling for Syria's withdrawal.
"Most people are skeptical [about Syria's aims]. The fear is that Syria will be setting up alternative intelligence structures as the old ones are being dismantled," a Western diplomat said.
President Bush said yesterday that he is pleased that Syria is "beginning" to withdraw, but said Washington expects all aspects of the 29-year Syrian intervention in Lebanon must end.
"And I mean not only the troops, but the people that have . . . have been embedded in parts of government, some of the intelligence services that have been embedded in government and others. They need to get completely out of Lebanon so the people of Lebanon can decide the fate of the country -- not another government, not agents of another government, but the people," Bush said in an interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. released yesterday.