U.S. Casts Blame on Iran, Syria for Deaths of Innocent in Lebanon

The Bush administration accused Iran and Syria on Friday of fueling ongoing violence in Lebanon by inciting members of the radical Shiite Hezbollah movement to take up arms against the country's western-backed government.

As Hezbollah militants seized control of large parts of Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced the show-of-force, which she said was being supported by Iranian and Syrian elements, and reaffirmed the firm support of the United States for Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's shaky coalition.

"Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring innocent citizens and undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state," she said. "Seeking to protect their state within a state, Hezbollah has exploited its allies and demonstrated its contempt for its fellow Lebanese."

"We will stand by the Lebanese government and the peaceful citizens of Lebanon through the crisis and provide the support they need to weather this storm," Rice said in a statement released after she spoke by phone with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and France about the situation. Rice was also trying to reach Saniora.

Rice's statement was read to reporters by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack who said the United States had evidence that Iran and Syria, in particular, were beginning to take an active role in encouraging the violence that has killed at least 14 people and wounded 20 since it began Wednesday.

"It is becoming more apparent now that the linkages that we know exist and are ongoing between Hezbollah and Syria and Iran are starting to manifest themselves in the current crisis," he said. "At the beginning we didn't see it, but we are now."

Specifically, McCormack said U.S. officials were seeing "groups and individuals that are known associates and proxies of Syria ... starting to engage. Groups that are linked to Syria and that are in Lebanon right now are taking a much more active roll in fanning the flames and violence and attacks that are destabilizing the political situation."

He would not specify which "groups and individuals" were involved, nor would he say if the United States had similar evidence of involvement by specific Iranian elements beyond Tehran's general support for Hezbollah.

The United States has grown increasingly concerned about the violence — Lebanon's worst sectarian fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war — as it has unfolded and Hezbollah has taken control of key parts of Beirut from Sunnis loyal to the Saniora's government, which has been wracked by a long-running political deadlock.

But it has thus far ruled out anything other than political and diplomatic support, praising the administration as well as the army, which has stayed out of the fighting, for their professionalism and commitment to the Lebanese people.

"The army is acting in a professional manner," McCormack said. "We believe it is an effective professional force that is working on behalf on this government and on behalf of the Lebanese people. We think that the government is exercising sound judgment."

The army has pledged to keep the peace but not take sides in the long deadlock — which pits Shiite Hezbollah and a few allies including some Christian groups, against the U.S.-backed government, which includes Christian and Sunni Muslims.