WASHINGTON – The United States pulled its ambassador from Syria (search) on Tuesday, expressing "profound outrage" over the assassination of a Lebanese leader who had protested Syrian influence in his country.
In Lebanon, noisy street processions mourned former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search) a day before the funeral that will bring international leaders to Beirut. Angry Lebanese attacked Syrian workers in his hometown of Sidon, injuring several and shattering the windows of a Syrian-owned bakery.
Many Lebanese are pressing Syria to withdraw its 15,000 soldiers — in the country for more than a decade.
"We believe the Lebanese people must be free to express their political preferences and choose their own representatives without intimidation or the threat of violence," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in announcing the imminent return of U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey (search).
Administration officials stopped short of directly accusing Syria of carrying out the murder. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said the assassination was the "proximate cause" of the ambassador's recall.
Asked if the United States would punish Syria with new economic sanctions, Rice said, "We will continue to consider other options."
"The Syrian problem is a serious problem," Rice said. "Our problems with the Syrian government are not new."
Among the problems, Rice said, were support for terrorism and for insurgents in Iraq. "The Syrian government is, unfortunately, on a path right now where relations are not improving but are worsening," she said.
Scobey's return does not break diplomatic relations with Syria, a country the United States has accused of exporting terrorism. Syria took no immediate reciprocal action, such as recalling its own ambassador from Washington.
The Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustapha, said Tuesday that those insinuating Syria had a role in the attack are "lacking logic" and accused people of trying to use a tragedy for political advantage. He also suggested damaging Syria was part of a plot.
"Syria has nothing to benefit from what has happened," Moustapha said in a televised interview. "Certain factions are trying to damage Syria because of what has happened, and this indicates a sinister plot that does not only stop at the murderous act of assassinating Rafik Hariri but also trying to point fingers at Syria."
Moustapha added, "What has happened in Lebanon goes far beyond a mere assassination of a national leader." He downplayed the recalling of the U.S. ambassador and said he did not know whether his government would ask him to return to Damascus for consultation.
Hariri died Monday when a huge car bomb blew up his motorcade in downtown Beirut. Sixteen others died in the bombing.
The killing was the most serious and destabilizing violence in Lebanon in more than a decade. It came just as Israel and the Palestinians were taking hopeful steps toward a peace agreement — and as the Bush administration was pressing for greater democratic changes elsewhere in the Middle East.
The bombing also made Syria an unwelcome front-burner problem for the Bush administration. Not quite one month into his second term, President Bush was already facing new diplomatic headaches with Iran and North Korea.
Syria, which has denied any involvement in Hariri's assassination, keeps its troops in Lebanon 15 years after the country's civil war ended and has the final say in internal Lebanese politics. Officials in Damascus say the troops are needed to keep peace for the Lebanese.
The bombing raised fears that Lebanon might revert to the political violence of the 1970s and '80s. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut warned Americans in the Lebanese capital to be extremely careful.
After the killing, Scobey "delivered a message to the Syrian government expressing our deep concern, as well as our profound outrage, over this heinous act of terrorism," Boucher said.
The Bush administration's actions indicated that it saw a Syrian hand behind the bombing, but neither Boucher nor White House press secretary Scott McClellan would say so outright.
"We have not made any determination of responsibility," Boucher said. The assassination led to the ambassador's recall because the killing "shows the distortions of Lebanese politics that are created by the Syrian presence" and calls into question Syria's explanation that its troops provide internal security.
The administration had earlier condemned the killing of Hariri, a billionaire construction magnate who masterminded the recovery of his country, and insisted that Syria comply with a U.N. resolution calling for the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon.
Hariri had been locked in a political struggle with the country's pro-Syrian president. He resigned last fall to protest Syrian meddling.
Although most suspicion has fallen on Syria or its supporters in Lebanon, other suspects might include rogue Syrian intelligence operatives or factions among the country's myriad religious groups. Claims of responsibility by Islamic militants also raised the possibility that Hariri had been targeted because of his close ties to Saudi Arabia — an enemy of Al Qaeda and other groups.
There is no timetable for Scobey to return to Damascus, Boucher said.