LONDON, March 1 -- In a tough warning to Syria, the United States and France on Tuesday demanded an immediate and total withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon. They also urged other nations to help chart a more stable future for Lebanon, including sending international monitors to observe its crucial spring elections.
At a news conference with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said the United States and France were looking at what could be done to "stabilize" Lebanon if Syria leaves, hinting at possible support for an international presence to ease the transition or fill the security void. But she said discussions had just begun and would not comment on reports circulating here that the two nations were exploring the option of a U.N. mission.
The diplomatic offensive came as the Bush administration made new allegations that groups based in Syria helped plan the suicide bombing that killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv on Friday. The allegation was originally made by Israel, but Rice said Tuesday that it was supported by "firm" new evidence.
"There is evidence that Islamic Jihad, headquartered in Syria, was in fact involved with the planning of those attacks in Tel Aviv, and so the Syrians have a lot to answer for," Rice said in an interview here with ABC News. "We don't know the degree of Syrian involvement, but certainly what is happening on the territory of Syria, in and around Damascus, is clearly threatening to the different kind of Middle East we're trying to grow."
Rice said there was "firm evidence that Palestinian Islamic Jihad, sitting in Damascus, not only knew about the attacks but was involved in the planning. We will be prepared to talk to others -- the Israelis, the Palestinians, with others in the region -- about this."
In an interview with Time magazine released Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said Syria would discuss its plans with Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East, who is scheduled to return to Syria later this month. Assad also said withdrawal "should be very soon and maybe in the next few months. Not after that."
On the sidelines of a conference called by Britain to devise ways to help the Palestinians, Rice also laid out U.S. thinking on how the United States and Europe could encourage Iran to permanently abandon any ambition to subvert its peaceful nuclear energy program for military use. Rice had a working dinner with her European counterparts to discuss how far the Bush administration might be willing to go.
Rice was expected to return to Washington with European feedback for a session with the administration's foreign policy team later this week. The administration's goal is to come up with a formula to offer the Europeans within days, U.S. officials said.
"We still need to explore, we need to discuss and see how we can come further together" to support nuclear talks with Iran led by Britain, France and Germany, Rice told reporters at her own news conference.
Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, told reporters traveling with Rice that the United States and Europeans had "good vibrations" and were headed in the same direction on Iran. He said the Europeans hoped to have an answer soon from the United States "on questions we may need after our next talks with Iran."
Rice appeared with Barnier early Tuesday to blast Syria for its refusal to abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for all foreign troops to leave Lebanon. The reason for the unusually pointed call to withdraw intelligence agents is U.S. and French concern that a pullout of the 15,000 or so remaining Syrian troops -- down from a high of 42,000 -- will not eliminate Syria's enormous influence in Lebanon.
"The Lebanese people are beginning to express their aspirations for democracy" and their wish to "carry out their political aspirations without foreign interference. This is something that we support very much," Rice said.
France and the United States will "intensify" their dialogue about Lebanon, Rice said, noting that she and Barnier have directed their staff members to begin talks on how to further support the elections, remove foreign "elements of interference" and help achieve the goals of the U.N. resolution.
Barnier added that Syria had "absolutely no excuse" for postponing its withdrawal.
In a subsequent statement, the United States and France also called for a "full, credible and transparent'' investigation of the death of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, on Feb. 14. Hariri and 16 others died in a car bombing in Beirut, triggering the outpouring of calls for Syria's withdrawal and leading to the resignation of Lebanon's prime minister and cabinet.
Citing full support for the Lebanese people's pursuit of an "independent, democratic and sovereign" nation, the U.S.-French statement said President Bush and President Jacques Chirac have agreed to work "urgently together" and with other countries to help Lebanon "reach that fundamental goal."
The two nations, which were deeply divided over Iraq policy, said they were united in their insistence that the Lebanese people "must have the opportunity to make their own political choices, without threats of violence or intimidation," the statement added. "They must have the opportunity to chart their own course through free and fair parliamentary elections this spring, bolstered by an international observer presence."