/ 16 June 2008

Rice visits Lebanon, meets new president

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on an unannounced visit to Beirut, said on Monday she wanted to back Lebanon’s democratic institutions following last month’s power-sharing deal that ended a protracted political crisis.

”I also am going to express the United States’ support for Lebanese democracy, for Lebanese sovereignty, and to talk about how the United States can support the institutions of a free Lebanon,” Rice told reporters as she flew to Beirut.

Rice flew by helicopter from Beirut airport to Baabda to meet Lebanese President Michel Suleiman at the presidential palace.

Rice shook hands with Suleiman and posed with him for photographers. ”It is a pleasure to see you, congratulations.”

”We are all just very supportive of your presidency and your government,” she told Suleiman.

She also plans to meet Prime Minister-designate Fouad Siniora, Parliament speaker Nabih Berri and majority leader Saad Hariri.

Rice was the highest-ranking US official to meet Suleiman since he was elected last month and it is her first visit to Lebanon since the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas.

Many Lebanese were angered by the US administration’s unwillingness to demand an immediate ceasefire in the conflict and derided her view at the time that the war was part of the ”birth pangs of the new Middle East”.

Asked if she thought there was bad blood between the two countries, she said: ”I don’t think there is bad blood between the United States and Lebanon, quite the contrary. The United States played a pivotal role in helping to end the war in 2006.”

After 18 months of deadlock, Lebanon’s Parliament elected Suleiman under a Qatari-mediated deal. Siniora is now trying to form a national unity government in which the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its allies will wield veto power.

A senior US official said it was unfair to accuse the United States of interfering in Lebanese politics.

”We are not picking and choosing Cabinet members … these are all issues for Lebanese to decide,” the official said.

While the Qatar agreement ended a sometimes violent standoff between the US-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition, it reflected the new balance of power by giving in to the Shi’ite group’s long-standing demand for veto power.

Rice flew to Lebanon from Jerusalem where she was on her sixth trip to the region to try and nudge Israelis and Palestinians towards a peace deal by the end of 2008 — a goal widely seen as unrealistic.

She said she would not be announcing any additional US economic or military assistance to Lebanon during her trip. – Reuters