- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

WASHINGTON — Detecting signs of hope for its Mideast peace initiatives in the defeat of a Hezbollah slate in Lebanon’s weekend election, the Obama administration said Monday it will send special envoy George Mitchell to Syria and Lebanon this week.

Officials in Washington heaped praise Monday on Lebanese voters for the weekend electoral results and were visibly relieved that moderate candidates prevailed over Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian-backed allies.

The surprising turn in an election that many observers expected to be won by Hezbollah cleared the way for former Sen. Mitchell to make hasty plans to visit Beirut and Damascus after previously planned stops this week in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

A senior administration official said Mitchell would be in Beirut on Friday and Damascus on Saturday after the Israeli and Palestinian meetings. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Mitchell’s exact itinerary is not yet finalized.

Mitchell had wanted to visit Syria on his current trip, which was announced last week, but did not get White House approval to go until Monday, after the Lebanese election results were known, the official said.

In his meetings in Damascus and Beirut, Mitchell will press the administration’s desire for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement that includes both Syria and Lebanon, officials said. They said the U.S. was pleased that Syria, with a long history of meddling in Lebanese politics, appeared not to have interfered in the vote.

Sunday’s election dealt a setback to Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies who had hoped to play a larger role, if not take outright control, of the country’s government. This would have boosted the influence of both Iran and Syria in Lebanon and could have hurt U.S. outreach efforts there and in the region, officials said.

President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team had invested heavy diplomatic capital in urging Lebanese voters to choose a path of moderation in the election that many predicted would see heavy Hezbollah gains.

Asked if he believed Obama’s speech may have made an impact on the vote, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he thought it was “certainly important” that the president had spoken about the importance of elections. But Gibbs also noted that Obama had not been among those who were concerned that Hezbollah would win.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made high-profile visits to Beirut separately in May and April to underscore U.S. support for Lebanon’s democracy, sovereignty and independent armed forces, which have been challenged by Hezbollah’s powerful militia and past Syrian domination.

Then, last week, in his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, Obama himself called for an embrace of democratic values throughout the Middle East and a new beginning in relations between the United States and Islam.

In a statement on Monday, Obama hailed the vote and pledged continuing U.S. support for Lebanon.

“The people of Lebanon have demonstrated to the world their courage and the strength of their commitment to democracy,” the president said, adding that “it is our sincere hope that the next government will continue along the path towards building a sovereign, independent and stable Lebanon.”

Obama urged Lebanon’s leaders to commit to “principles of peace and moderation” that he said “are the best means to secure a sovereign and prosperous Lebanon.”

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