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Syria yesterday formally established diplomatic relations with Baghdad for the first time in 20 years, while Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is expected to travel to Tehran for talks as early as this weekend. Syria may also be represented at that meeting.

“Iran is projecting its power in the region and sending a message to the U.S.,” said Robert Rabil, director of graduate studies at the political science department at Florida Atlantic University.

“It is an assertion of Shi’ite politics, and the Islamists, led by Iran, are using Syria to project their power in the region. So now Iran has a say in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in Iraq now they have a strong say.”

Mr. Bush, in Honolulu on his way home from an Asian summit, stopped short of specifically blaming anyone for the assassination but pledged to defend Lebanon’s democracy “against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence in that important country.”

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said Washington viewed the murder as “an act of terrorism. We also view it as an act of intimidation.”

Hezbollah and its supporters quit Lebanon’s Cabinet on Nov. 11 after their demands for a larger role in the government were rejected. Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed to take the group’s cause to the streets and bring down the government.

Mr. Ginsberg said it would be a fallacy to think that Sheik Nasrallah was acting for strictly domestic reasons.

“He is a pawn of Iran,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “It is like watching a chess player — Iran — begin playing some very good matches. We had better stop playing checkers or we are going to wind up handing the Middle East over to our adversaries.”