White House Watching Lebanon With 'Interest'

The White House praised the resignation of Lebanon's pro-Syria prime minister and his government on Monday, saying it opened the door for new elections "free of all foreign interference."

"We are closely watching developments with great interest," White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said. "The resignation of the Karami government represents an opportunity for the Lebanese people to have a new government that is truly representative of their country's diversity."

The administration also asked anew that Syria (search) comply with a U.N. resolution requiring it to pull its 15,000 troops out of Lebanon (search) and stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.

"Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel need to leave the country," McClellan said. "That will help ensure that elections are free and fair."

Prime Minister Omar Karami (search) announced that he and his Cabinet were stepping down, after thousands of protesters massed outside Parliament. Many in Lebanon accuse Syria and Karami's government of being behind the assassination two weeks ago of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search) and 16 others in a huge bombing and have pressed since for the government's resignation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that the administration had no confirmation of any foreign involvement in Hariri's death. But she said that "the involvement of the Syrians with terrorists and terrorism is well-known."

"It's been one of the most important barriers to improved relations with the Syrians on the part of the United States," Rice said en route to a meeting in London with newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and representatives of European and Arab countries.

Lebanon's president must next appoint a new prime minister after consulting with Parliament members. The prime minister consults parliamentary blocs to form a Cabinet that must withstand a parliamentary vote of confidence.

"We believe the process of a new government should proceed in accordance with the Lebanese constitution and should be free of all foreign interference," McClellan said.

In another show of support for change in Lebanon, the White House also announced Monday that Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, will meet with President Bush in the Oval Office on March 16.

"The cardinal is respected throughout Lebanon and around the world for his religious leadership and for promoting intracommunal harmony among the different faiths in his country," McClellan said, "and is an important voice for Lebanese independence, freedom and democracy."

Christians are a sizable minority in Lebanon. Although their numbers have declined and their political influence has waned in recent years, they remain a force in the country.

On another issue, McClellan would not comment on Syria's hand-over of Saddam Hussein's half brother, a most-wanted leader in the Sunni-based insurgency in Iraq. Iraqi officials announced Sunday that Syria had captured and handed over Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan.