By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006
BEIRUT, Feb. 23 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice snubbed the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon in an unannounced visit here Thursday, deliberately not scheduling a meeting with him while touching base with key officials seeking to pull Lebanon out of the shadow of three decades of domination by the Damascus government.
Rice disavowed any motive in the diplomatic slight, but it appeared calculated to undercut President Emile Lahoud as the March anniversary of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution approaches. Those street protests were sparked by the car-bomb assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which many Lebanese have blamed on neighboring Syria and which led to the withdrawal of Syrian military forces after 30 years in Lebanon.
In 2004, Damascus pressed Lebanese officials to extend Lahoud's term by three years. Now Syria's foes in Lebanon are angling to force his ouster next month under a rarely used constitutional procedure.
Rice visited Lahoud at his presidential palace during a trip to Beirut seven months ago. Asked why a meeting was not arranged this time, Rice said curtly, "I've met with him." She told reporters traveling with her that the Lebanese "need a presidency that looks forward and not back, and defends Lebanese sovereignty."
But she also stressed that in "a period of intense changes," political shifts must be constitutional and peaceful. Rice said she was certain that this period would create a more democratic Lebanon "determined that there should not be foreign influences nor influences of violence." Her assertion of neutrality was met with skepticism from Lebanese journalists, who questioned her about whether she had a favorite in the political maneuvering.
Hours after Rice's visit, anti-Syrian ministers announced a boycott of cabinet sessions headed by Lahoud. Only seven of 28 ministers showed up Thursday for a regular weekly session, forcing its cancellation, the Associated Press reported.
Rice spent only four hours here, meeting primarily with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and top members of his cabinet. One person seated at the table was Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, who the U.S. Embassy said was reportedly installed at the insistence of Hezbollah, the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim movement. Rice shook hands and posed for photographs with Salloukh.
Hezbollah, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, has 14 seats in parliament and the cabinet post for energy. The U.N. Security Council has demanded that militia groups such as Hezbollah give up their weapons, but Rice has indicated there is no deadline for action.
"This is part of an evolutionary process that is going on in Lebanon, and we have tried to be supportive of that process that the Lebanese themselves are carrying out," Rice said, adding that the U.N. resolution calling for the disbanding of militias would eventually be implemented.
At a news conference with Rice, Siniora praised her "show of patience." Under Lebanon's power-sharing constitution, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament is a Shiite. While Rice did not see Lahoud, she traveled 45 minutes north of Beirut to visit Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church and an influential figure in the debate over Lahoud's fate. She also paid courtesy calls at the homes of Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, and Nabih Berri, the Shiite parliamentary speaker.
The U.S. Embassy, in a hefty package of background material for reporters, did not include any information on Lahoud, though it provided biographies and photographs of the entire cabinet and other officials.
Rice has been on a week-long tour of the Middle East, seeking to drum up support for U.S. efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear program and pressure Hamas, the militant Islamic group that won Palestinian legislative elections, to recognize Israel and renounce its armed struggle. She had been scheduled to travel to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday morning, and reporters traveling with her were informed of the detour to Beirut shortly before her plane left Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The trip to the Emirates was moved to Thursday evening.