WASHINGTON – President Bush warned Syria on Thursday against interfering in Lebanon's presidential election and said he is sending a top military commander to Beirut to find more ways to help Lebanon fight extremists.
"The United States strongly supports the success of democracy in Lebanon," Bush said after meeting with Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon's parliament. "The United States is more than just an admirer. We want to help as best as we possibly can."
The Lebanese parliament failed last week to elect a president because of a boycott by the Syrian-backed opposition. Lawmakers have been unsuccessful so far in efforts to reach agreement on a consensus candidate between the pro-government camp and the opposition. The anti-Syrian coalition is led by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, also a close ally of Hariri, and the opposition is led by the Syria-backed Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.
"I am deeply concerned about foreign interference in your elections," Bush told Hariri, adding that many nations have called on Syria to stay out. "We expect Syria to honor that demand," he said.
The parliament put off until Oct. 23 another session on the issue of choosing a successor to President Emile Lahoud, who steps down Nov. 24. More than 15 declared or undeclared candidates are vying for the post, three of them from the pro-government camp and one from the opposition.
If the deadlock persists, some fear the country could end up with two rival governments battling for primacy, much like in the last two years of the country's 1975-1990 civil war.
The United States has provided military assistance to Saniora's government to help it fight radicals. Bush said Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, would travel to Lebanon to see what more could be done.
"We respect your country and we understand the obstacles that you face," Bush told Hariri.
Hariri, a billionaire businessman who is close to the Saudi royal family, leads the largest bloc in Parliament and is tapped to possibly be the next prime minister under a new president. He has in recent days repeatedly stressed the need to reach agreement to elect a president to avoid a power vacuum.
Syria is routinely accused by the U.S. and others of being Lebanon's proxy ruler and of fomenting instability in the country. It also has been accused by many in a series of assassinations of top Lebanese officials, including Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, slain in a massive 2005 truck bombing.
"We've had members of our parliament being killed," Hariri said, sitting at Bush's side in the Oval Office after their 45-minute meeting. "This action is taken by terrorists that want to finish our democracy. We will stay resolved, we will stay focused on our democracy. We will not let those who want to destroy our democracy succeed."
Damascus has denied involvement in the assassinations. It was the Hariri killing which ignited the huge protests that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a three-decade occupation.
Bush said an international tribunal looking into the Hariri and other assassinations needs to move more quickly.
"That tribunal is taking too long to get started," he said. "The international community must work more quickly to stand up this tribunal so people will be held to account."