Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Bush administration turned up the pressure on Syria yesterday, recalling the U.S. ambassador for “urgent consultations” in Washington, but it stopped short of accusing Damascus of being behind former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in Beirut on Monday.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Mr. Hariri’s assassination was the “proximate cause” of Ambassador Margaret Scobey’s return and that Syria’s “stated reason” for its de facto occupation of Lebanon ” the country’s internal security ” is no longer valid.

“We are not laying blame; it needs to be investigated,” Miss Rice said.

“When something happens in Lebanon, Syria needs to help to find accountability for what has happened there,” she said. “This is a part of the destabilization that takes place when you have the kind of conditions that you do now in Lebanon thanks to Syrian interference.”

Miss Rice, speaking at a press conference with visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said the United States “does not like the direction of U.S.-Syrian relations.”

“Unfortunately, there happens to be a growing list of differences with the Syrian government,” she said.

Miss Scobey “will be returning imminently to Washington from Damascus,” after she “delivered a message to the Syrian government expressing our deep concern as well as our profound outrage over this heinous act of terrorism,” the State Department said.

Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, played down the recall, saying it was a normal diplomatic procedure.

“I was recalled to Damascus nine times by my government in the past year only,” he said on CNN.

Mr. Hariri, who is credited with helping Lebanon recover from a 15-year civil war, was killed in a massive car-bomb attack on his heavily fortified motorcade. An international investigation has been called for into the incident.

“We also have made it very clear to Syria that we want them to use their influence to prevent the kind of terrorist attack that took place from happening,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

The United States has blacklisted Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism and accuses it of providing a safe haven to Palestinian militants and foreign terrorists operating in Iraq.

Washington has called repeatedly on Damascus to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon. But those warnings, as well as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 that made a similar demand last year, have been ignored.

The Bush administration said earlier it is considering further sanctions on Syria.

“We are indeed concerned about many aspects of Syrian behavior,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

“The longer we go on without seeing some significant progress,” he said, “the more likely it becomes that we will look to the various tools that we have, including the Syria Accountability Act, to impose further measures.”

The Syria Accountability Act, which Congress passed in May, banned all U.S. exports to Syria except for food and medicine, as well as flights between the two countries. Some on Capitol Hill, however, have been pushing for prohibiting all American investment.

The U.N. Security Council yesterday condemned Mr. Hariri’s assassination and authorized Secretary-General Kofi Annan to open an inquiry into “the circumstances, causes and consequences of this terrorist act.”

Diplomats said they do not expect a report until April.

Washington did not seek to name Syria in the statement issued by the council’s president, saying it did not have proof of Damascus’ involvement.

“We do not know who did this horrible act at this point,” said acting U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. “But let me be clear that the message of the council is that other countries should get out of Lebanese affairs.”

In September, the council passed a resolution drafted by France and the United States that urged all foreign troops to leave Lebanon and to stop interfering in the country’s political process.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Annan named veteran U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen as his special representative for the Lebanon-Syria situation. Mr. Roed-Larsen concluded his first visit to the two capitals last week.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said yesterday he did not see a need to change the organization’s relations with Syria. He noted, however, that the outcome of the investigation might justify a policy review.

In Lebanon, thousands of protesters took to the streets in the northern Sunni port city of Tripoli and hundreds demonstrated in Mr. Hariri’s hometown of Sidon, shouting slogans blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad for his death, wire reports said.

Dozens of angry Hariri supporters attacked Syrian workers in Sidon, lightly injuring five and shattering the windows of a Syrian-owned bakery.

International leaders are expected to join tens of thousands at Mr. Hariri’s funeral today.

Lebanese Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh suggested a suicide bomber may have targeted Mr. Hariri’s motorcade as its cruised through Beirut’s Ein-Mreisseh neighborhood. He hinted a network could have been behind the attack that also killed 16 others.

• James Lakely in Washington and Betsy Pisik in New York contributed to this report.

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