WASHINGTON – U.S. officials are cautiously suggesting that the international community could provide peacekeepers in Lebanon (search) if they're needed to insure stability after a Syrian withdrawal, sources familiar with the debate said Wednesday.
The United States has taken the hard position that Syria (search) must withdraw its troops and security forces from Lebanon and permit the neighboring Arab nation to run its own political affairs for the first time in decades.
The message is loud and clear, President Bush said during a visit to a community college in Maryland on Wednesday, and that message — that democracy must be given a chance in Lebanon — is supported by France, Russia, and other nations, including Arab neighbors Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
"The free world is in agreement that Damascus' authority over the political affairs of its neighbor must end," Bush said. "The world is speaking with one voice when it comes to making sure that democracy has a chance to flourish in Lebanon and throughout the greater Middle East. And when democracies take hold, the world becomes more peaceful."
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have urged Damascus to set a timetable for withdrawal. Syrian President Bashar Assad told Time magazine that his country's 14,000 troops could leave within the next few months. One of his aides later said it might not be possible to do it that fast.
Syria's ambassador warned that a quick withdrawal of his country's soldiers, could leave a power vacuum and rekindle the sectarian violence the Syrians surpressed.
U.S. officials don't trust Assad's promises and are anxious to see him comply with a longstanding U.N. resolution calling for Syria to withdraw from its neighbor's territory.
"We've seen words. What we want to see is action that moves in that direction. Syria needs to quit interfering in Lebanon. The Lebanese people are standing up, in the streets of Lebanon and saying we want to reclaim our sovereignty and independence, free from outside interference." said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. He added that not only must troops withdraw, the secret police must go as well and the nation must be permitted to run its own political affairs.
The White House has steadily turned up the heat on Syria over the past 16 days, since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Administration officials have voiced support for anti-Syrian demonstrators, whose protests brought down the pro-Syrian Lebanese government on Monday.
Officials traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the administration was seeking pressure on Syria from other Arab states. Damascus, however, does not seem phased by any of the pressure. It regarded Rice's comments that the Baath party there is "out of step with the growing desire for democracy in the Middle East" as haughty and arrogant.
In an editorial appearing in the government-run Tishrin newspaper, commentators called the U.N. resolution a "U.S.-Zionist plan" that "will not succeed without setting off fires."
While Syria ratched up the rhetoric, Turkish ambassador to the United States Osman Faruk Logoglu urged the Bush administration to offer trade and other economic and diplomatic incentives to Syria to pull out.
"The chances of Syria withdrawing are greater than ever before," he said. "But it is obviously going to take a long time."
Meanwhile, the United States is considering an incentives approach against Iran and its nuclear weapons program.
Returning from a trip to Britain for a conference on the Palestinians' future, Rice quickly marched over to the White House before meeting with congressional leaders in order to discuss the stick-to-carrot ratio in dealing with Tehran. In a policy shift, Bush appears to be on the verge of approving European sales of civilian aircraft parts and commercial planes to Iran and its eventual membership in the World Trade Organization (search).
"We cannot be relaxed about Iran," Rice told an interviewer on British television network ITV. But, economic incentives proposed by the Europeans and other "diplomacy has time to work."
That doesn't mean, however, that alternatives will be ignored.
"The president of the United States never categorically rules out anything," Rice said.
Jackie Sanders, the chief U.S. delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) board of directors, said Iran's claim that its nuclear program is a peaceful one is cynical.
Sanders said the U.N. watchdog agency had catalogued a "startling list of Iranian attempts to hide and mislead and delay the work" of the IAEA.
She urged support for a U.S. campaign to refer Iran's activities to the U.N. Security Council. Earlier in the week, State Department officials said a U.S. move was unlikely before June.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.