WASHINGTON – President Bush on Thursday applauded efforts by Lebanon's new president to promote reconciliation in a country the United States considers key to combatting extremism in the Middle East.
In remarks at the outset of an Oval Office meeting with President Michel Suleiman, Bush said he has watched carefully the public statements that Suleiman has made since taking office in May.
"Your statements impressed me and we're most impressed by the national dialogue that you're holding in an attempt to seek reconciliation," Bush said as reporters looked on. "The United States is proud to stand by your side. Our mission is your mission: a country that is strong and capable, a country where people can make a peace."
Suleiman, seen as relatively friendly with Syria, was installed as president in a compromise after Hezbollah blocked pro-Western factions from electing a politician who took a harder-line stance against Syria. Suleiman's talks with Bush on Thursday also were expected to cover the expansion of the Lebanese army and peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the post of prime minister goes to a Sunni Muslim. The majority is headed by Sunnis while the opposition is led by Shiites. Clashes last May between Hezbollah's Shiite supporters and pro-government Sunni loyalists in Beirut and other areas left 81 people dead and more than 200 wounded.
Sitting beside Bush in the Oval Office, Suleiman said his country shares many U.S. values, including the promotion of liberty and the fight against terrorism. And he thanked Bush for his administration's support of the Lebanese government, particularly efforts to bolster the Lebanese army.
"There are so many things in common between the American people and the Lebanese people. We are here also to reaffirm our rights to have a prosperous Lebanon, a democratic Lebanon," Suleiman said. "Mr. President, we are also here to affirm the need to liberate all Lebanese territories and also to make it clear that the future of Palestinian refugees is in their homeland, not in Lebanon."
The U.S. financial crisis was taking center stage at the White House on Thursday, with the two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, and congressional leaders scheduled to meet there to discuss a rescue plan for financial markets.
Those meetings were last-minute additions to Bush's schedule. Already on the calendar were Bush's meetings with Suleiman, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is in Washington trying to rally congressional support for a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Mideast peace was the topic of Bush's talks with Abbas.
Peace talks were relaunched at a U.S.-hosted summit last November. With prodding from the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians set a year-end target for reaching a final peace accord that would end six decades of hostilities.
Despite months of negotiations, there have been no apparent breakthroughs, and the sides remain at odds over key issues like the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the competing claims to Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Negotiations have been stalled by the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who stepped down amid a string of corruption allegations. Tzipi Livni, Israel's prime minister-designate, has signaled that she will keep peace negotiations going.