The United States, the United Nations and several European and Arab governments sought to bolster Lebanon's quest to shake Syrian domination over its political life Monday, pledging economic and political support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
A high-level meeting organized by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice marked the first time that key Arab governments, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have publicly rallied behind the U.S.-backed initiative to support Lebanon's fledgling government. It represented a snub to Lebanon's Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, who was not invited to the session and who was addressing the U.N. General Assembly while Rice, Secretary General Kofi Annan and foreign ministers from several countries debated his country's future.
The immediate goal of the gathering -- made up of a "core group" of U.S., European and Middle East officials and chaired by Annan -- was to put Lebanon high on the international agenda and to send a new warning to Syria that its involvement in Lebanon is unacceptable, officials said. The new group's long-term goals are to squeeze Lahoud to step down and foster political changes that will eventually diminish Syria's hold and disarm Hezbollah, a pro-Syria guerrilla group, the sources said.
"We gathered to demonstrate our support for and commitment to the new government of Lebanon as it works to reaffirm Lebanon's sovereignty, engage in vital reforms and strengthen Lebanon's democratic institutions," Annan told reporters after the meeting. "The international community remains steadfast in its determination to ensure that outside actors end all interference in the domestic affairs of Lebanon."
Rice said the gathering "sends a powerful signal to the world that the international community is devoted and committed to the future of a peaceful, prosperous, democratic and sovereign Lebanon."
Annan said that Monday's session -- which included the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Britain, France and Italy, along with World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz -- would set the stage for a major international conference on Lebanon's future by year-end.
Lahoud has been controversial since his six-year term was extended for three years by the former Syrian-dominated parliament -- in defiance of a constitutional limit. The United States, France and other governments accused Syria of forcing Lebanese officials to keep Lahoud. The Bush administration believes that the leadership of Siniora, who was elected prime minister in May, represents an opportunity for Lebanon to break decades of Syrian control.
Annan's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, sought to play down suggestions that Monday's meeting of the "core group" was intentionally timed to exclude Lahoud. But other U.S., European and U.N. officials said the schedule was part of a plan to isolate him. "The international community has already sidelined him. He has become irrelevant," said a European official involved in the meeting.
The group's intention is also to prepare for completion of a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The report is due in late October.
That probe, headed by U.N.-appointed investigator Detlev Mehlis, a German, has already implicated four senior military and intelligence officials aligned with Syria and Lahoud. The Bush administration and its European allies are considering introducing a new U.N. resolution to ensure the perpetrators of Hariri's assassination on Feb. 14 are held to account.
Hariri's slaying in a car bomb that also killed 19 others unleashed the "Cedar Revolution" and forced Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon. The core group is now seeking to maintain the momentum of change, U.S. and U.N. officials say. "The triggering mechanism for the new resolution will be news out of the Mehlis commission," said a State Department official familiar with the plans. "Then the screws will be put on Syria."
At Monday's meeting, the participants agreed informally not to press for the disarmament of Hezbollah, the last active militia, until after the Mehlis report is delivered, according to diplomats involved in the meeting. Siniora said Lebanon was now at "the threshold of a new dawn," and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit pledged to support Lebanon's aspirations to enjoy "stability and prosperity."
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal, meanwhile, railed against Hariri's killers as he pledged his country's support for Siniora's government "with all our ability."
Wright reported from Washington.