Rice Pledges U.S. Support for Democracy to Lebanon

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured senior Lebanese political leader Walid Jumblatt on Monday of "ongoing U.S. support for the path of democracy and reform" in the Middle Eastern country, a U.S. spokesman said.

Rice did not speak to reporters after the meeting, though, and the spokesman, Tom Casey, did not provide details of what form U.S. support might take, although he singled out Lebanon's right to free and fair presidential elections under a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Jumblatt said before seeing Rice that he wanted U.S. support to "liberate our country" from Syrian influence. He said the outcome ultimately depends on opposition forces in Syria.

It was Rice's second meeting with the anti-Syria leader of the Progressive Socialist Party in two weeks, symbolically ensuring that Syria and its supporters are made aware of the U.S. determination to terminate Syrian influence in Lebanon.

For Jumblatt, a sometimes quixotic Druse leader, it's a long leap since he lost his U.S. visa in 2003 for publicly expressing regret that he hoped a missile would kill then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. An architect of the war in Iraq, Wolfowitz had survived a rocket attack on a hotel in Baghdad.

Jumblatt, always sharp-tongued and with a history of shifting his alliances, was an ardent supporter of Syria until two years ago. A day after the Baghdad rocket attack he said he hoped it would be more effective next time "to get rid of this germ and people like him in Washington, who are wreaking havoc with the Arab land in Iraq and in Palestine."

In a news conference Monday at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center before calling on Rice, Jumblatt criticized U.S. strategy in Iraq, saying "it was a big mistake to destroy the Iraq army." The result, he said, is that Syria and Iran are free "to play" inside Iraq.

He also spoke hopefully of the extremist Palestinian group Hamas changing its anti-Israel policy once it is in power. But Jumblatt took a low-key approach on that volatile issue and said: "I am not here to defend Hamas."

In fact, he said his mission was to generate political, economic and diplomatic pressure on Syria and Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, and look into ways the United States might influence Saudi Arabia and Egypt to play a role.

"The Syrians are smuggling troops and weapons into Lebanon. The same people they are sending to Iraq," he said.

"If you don't change Syrian policy, you won't have peace," Jumblatt said.

Under U.S. and French pressure, Syria has withdrawn its troops from Lebanon. But it remains a potent force in the neighboring Arab country, and channels Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, a militant Lebanese group clasified along with Hamas by the State Department as a terrorist organization.