WASHINGTON – Two Bush administration officials pressed Sunday for the prompt removal of all Syrian forces in Lebanon (search), a move they said would free upcoming Lebanese elections from pressure by their neighbor country.
"The sequence needs to be: Get Syrian troops out of Lebanon, get free and fair elections, get a democratic government in place," national security adviser Stephen Hadley (search) said.
Hadley's comments on the Sunday talk shows, and similar ones by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search), came as the militant group Hezbollah (search) flexed its political muscle in Lebanon, organizing the second huge pro-Syrian rally in a week. Hezbollah has nine members in Lebanon's 128-seat parliament.
Though Rice called Hezbollah a terrorist organization that must disarm in accordance with a United Nations Security Council resolution, she said: "We need to do first things first. When Syrian forces are out, we will have a better sense, and more importantly the Lebanese will have a better sense, of how to chart a political future."
Syria (search) has withdrawn nearly a third of its troops from Lebanon, with the fate of the rest delayed until an April 7 meeting between the military leadership of the two countries.
Terje Larsen, the U.N. special envoy, will provide details of Syria's plan this week to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Lebanon considers Hezbollah a legitimate resistance movement that led the guerrilla war against Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud (search) said Saturday his country will not accept the U.N. resolution's demand that Hezbollah be disarmed. Hezbollah says its weapons are to defend Lebanon from any possible Israeli attack.
Syrian Cabinet Minister Bouthaina Shaaban underscored the political dimension of Hezbollah, saying on a cable news show that the group is not a Lebanese militia but rather an important political party that put an end to Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The group continues to launch occasional attacks against Israeli troops in a disputed parcel of land on the southern Lebanese border.
The demand for Syria to leave Lebanon is spelled out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 (search), which also calls for the disarming of militias in Lebanon -- a clear reference to Hezbollah's military wing.