MEXICO CITY – The Bush administration denied Thursday that it has softened its view of the Hezbollah (search) political and terror movement in Lebanon (search) as the Mideast country nears what could be its first open elections in decades.
"Our view of Hezbollah has not changed," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) told reporters en route to meetings in Mexico.
"The goal in the near term is to make certain that the Lebanese people have a fair opportunity to have free elections and to determine their own political future," Rice said.
Hezbollah is likely to play a major role in Lebanese elections scheduled for May. The United States has long listed the Iranian-founded, anti-Israeli Shiite Muslim group as a terrorist organization.
"What we are focused on at this point is removing the artificial factor in Lebanese politics and that is Syrian forces and Syrian security personnel," Rice said. "The Syrian forces need to get out."
Syria has had troops stationed on the land of its much smaller neighbor for nearly three decades, including during Lebanon's devastating civil war in the 1970s and 1970s. There is mounting international pressure, driven largely by the United States and France, to evict Syria now, nearly 15 years after the civil war ended.
President Bush has said that Syria must be out before the Lebanese elections in late May, and the United States and France jointly sponsored a United Nations Security Council (search) resolution calling for immediate withdrawal.
A New York Times story Thursday said the Bush administration had reluctantly agreed to go along with efforts by France and the United Nations to nudge Hezbollah into mainstream, legitimate political life in Lebanon.
"The report suggests that our view has changed on Hezbollah and it has not," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters en route to Louisville, where Bush was speaking on Social Security. "It's wrong."
Hezbollah demonstrated its political clout this week with an enormous pro-Syrian rally in Beirut.