WASHINGTON – President Bush called on the people of Lebanon "to be courageous" and take control of their country from remaining Syrian influence.
Bush said the United States can pressure Syria, "but what we can't do is to force people to be courageous in the name of peace. That's up to Lebanon's people themselves." He commented in an interview with Future Television of Lebanon, which was founded by assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The interview was conducted Thursday and released Friday by the White House. In it, Bush all but called for the removal of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud.
"I think the president ought to be somebody who is independent-minded, somebody who focuses on the future of the country, somebody who understands that foreign influence inside of a country can be very negative," Bush said.
Under joint pressure from the United States and France in the U.N. Security Council, Syria has withdrawn its troops from Lebanon, but it remains a dominant political force.
In the south, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, armed by Iran through Syria, has conducted a cross-border war with Israel.
In the view of some Lebanese politicians, Hezbollah is a resistance force — not a terrorist group as classified by the State Department — and remains powerful. A Hezbollah member is in the Lebanese government.
Bush, however, said that "armed militia should disarm, and it's very important to understand you can't have a democracy if political parties have their own armed force."
Lebanese forces should be in control of the country, he said.
Bush's remarks coincided with a campaign for free presidential elections by Walid Jumblatt, a senior Lebanese politician and rival of Lahoud. Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan boosted Jumblatt's stock with high-profile meetings this week.
Next week, meanwhile, the United Nations receives the first report from Serge Brammertz, the new U.N. chief investigator probing the February 2005 assassination of Hariri, a powerful and wealthy anti-Syrian figure.
"Our position is that we want to know the truth and we expect all parties to be forthcoming with the truth," Bush said. "The truth is really important to help Lebanon meet a goal that we want for Lebanon, which is free of foreign interference, democratic and peaceful."
An initial report implicated senior Syrian officials in the Beirut assassination. Syria denied involvement.
"I'm worried about people who stall and hope that the world turns a blind eye to a terrible death," Bush said. "And we're not going to turn a blind eye. We will keep focused on this important issue."