WASHINGTON – If Syria (search) wants to improve its relations with the United States, it needs to stop backing Baathists (search) in Iraq, completely withdraw from Lebanon and shut down the offices of the militant group Hezbollah (search), President Bush says.
"Hezbollah not only is trying to destabilize the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, but Hezbollah, as you know, is a dangerous organization," the president told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. (search) during an interview Monday.
Both Iran and Syria have supported the Lebanese group Hezbollah in its attacks on Israel. The State Department considers the group a terrorist organization, but Lebanon cing the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center in separate bombings in Argentina in the early 1990s that killed scores. Hezbollah denies the claims.
Demands by the United Nations and the United States that Syrian forces leave Lebanon intensified after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri (search). Bush said his administration has been clear about the steps it wants Syria to take.
"One is to stop supporting Baathists in Iraq -- stop those people in Syria who are funneling money and helping smuggle people and arms into Iraq," Bush said. "They've heard that message directly from me. And secondly, of course, is to completely withdraw from Lebanon."
Bush said he thinks Syria will respond to diplomatic pressure, and that the United States would be willing to rally the international community to help Lebanon's economy.
"The United States, as well as European finance ministers, would want to work closely with international organizations, like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) or the World Bank, to help this country get back on its feet after occupation -- help this new democracy succeed," Bush said. "Yes, there will plenty of help."
Washington demands a full Syrian withdrawal before parliamentary elections, which should be held before the May 31 expiration of the Lebanese legislature's mandate. Syrian President Bashar Assad has said his country's remaining 8,000 soldiers and intelligence agents will leave Lebanon by the end of this month. About 6,000 Syrian troops have already left the country since March.
"I am pleased that they're beginning to get out," Bush said. "And we expect them to be completely out. And I mean not only the troops, but the people that have had -- that have been embedded in parts of government, some of the intelligence services that have been embedded in government and others."