UNITED NATIONS – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) and several other foreign ministers on Monday repeated their call for Syria to stay out of Lebanese politics now that it has withdrawn its troops from the nation.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora met with Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anann (search) and ministers of European and Muslim nations as he charts a delicate course of political independence after 29 years effectively occupied by neighboring Syria.
"Lebanon has to be free of foreign interference. This is an issue of national sovereignty for Lebanon, and Syria must respect the national sovereignty of Lebanon," Rice said. "Syria needs to get on the right side of events that are going on in the Middle East."
Saniora is seeking economic ties beyond its former patron and overlord Syria. His newly elected government got a show of international support but no immediate promises of financial aid.
Instead, leaders agreed to hold a pledging conference in Beirut by the end of the year.
"Today, Lebanon is at a threshhold of a new dawn," Saniora said. "With the good will and support of the international community and the determination of the Lebanese people, we have a real chance of achieving our goals."
After decades of civil war and political turmoil, Lebanon has one of the highest national debts in the world — measured as 165 percent of its gross national product or about $36 billion. Saniora hopes eventually to win international debt relief, although most of the debt is held by Lebanese creditors, and pledges to stimulate the country's sluggish economy.
"This gathering I think sends a powerful sign to the world that the international community is devoted and committed to a peaceful prosperous, democratic and sovereign Lebanon," Rice said at a news conference after the meeting.
The meeting was also attended by the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Italy, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Britain. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was also there.
The event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (search) comes as a U.N. investigation into a political assassination in Lebanon draws closer to Syrian President Bashar Assad's inner circle.
Assad skipped the annual gathering of nations in New York, and Syria was the only nation among 190 attending not to address the delegates.
Under pressure, Syria allowed U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis to question Assad intimates last week about the February killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).
The visit highlighted the vulnerability of Assad's government as international pressure mounts over its involvement in Lebanon. The Bush administration and the new Iraqi government claim that Syria is allowing foreign terrorists and arms to flow over its border with Iraq.
Mehlis has until Oct. 25 to complete his investigation.
Syria has denied involvement in the murder. On Sunday, it promised to cooperate with the inquiry, which began June 17.
Mehlis has said there are no Syrian suspects, and those he wants to question will stand as witnesses.
Lebanese media have said they include Syria's last intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazale; two aides; and Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, who was intelligence chief in Lebanon until five years ago. Mehlis' talks at a later stage could include a meeting with Assad.
Saniora promised justice for the perpetrators.
"All the Lebanese are really seeking thre truth, no matter how long it will take and no matter which person it is going to touch and implicated," he said. "We want the truth so everybody will learn a lesson not to commit such crimes in the future."
The United States has not directly blamed Syria for Hariri's killing, but it withdrew its ambassador from Damascus to protest what U.S. diplomats called the overall security and political situation in Lebanon.
The administration claims some credit for fostering a new democratic government in Lebanon, largely through a U.N. resolution a year ago. The resolution, sponsored with France, called for immediate Syrian withdrawal and for political self-determination in Lebanon.
Syria initially ignored the U.N. statement, but it later formed a framework to monitor troop withdrawal and free elections that brought Saniora to power.
Rice reiterated that Syria must stop allowing terrorists to cross its border and kill innocent Iraqis. She also demanded that it stop supporting "Palestinian rejectionists" who oppose peace with Israel.