WASHINGTON—The White House on Wednesday accused Syria, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah of trying to topple Lebanon's fragile democratic government.
In a statement, White House spokesman Tony Snow said there was "mounting evidence" of plans to unseat the U.S.-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
Snow and a State Department spokesman declined to detail the evidence of such a plot.
The Syrian Embassy in Washington said it "totally dismisses these unfounded allegations," adding that Syria "fully respects the sovereignty of Lebanon and does not interfere in its internal politics."
The White House statement came less than a day after Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, threatened street protests aimed at forcing a new "national unity" government in Lebanon that would give more political power to Hezbollah. The group, which represents Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, fought Israel to a standstill in a war last summer.
The three-paragraph White House statement was the latest in a series of public steps the Bush administration has taken to turn up the heat on Syria and Iran, which have thwarted U.S. goals in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Two U.S. intelligence officials said there's no evidence that Syria or Iran is plotting either a military uprising or a coup against Saniora's government.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because intelligence is classified and they aren't authorized to speak to reporters, said Syria does appear intent on bullying Lebanon into abandoning any further investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and that Iran and Hezbollah are determined to expand Shiite political power in Lebanon. A U.N. investigation has implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials in Hariri's assassination.
"What's new," said one of the officials, "is that the administration for the last few months has been looking for ways to turn up the heat on (Syrian President Bashar) Assad and (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad so both of them will turn down the heat in Iraq."
The Bush administration accuses Syria and Iran of aiding anti-U.S. forces in Iraq.
In another signal aimed at Damascus, White House officials last week met with a coalition of exiled opponents of Assad and offered rhetorical support. The Oct. 24 meeting was remarkable because the coalition, called the National Salvation Front, includes an Islamist group, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
"This is the highest-level meeting we've had," said Ammar Abdulhamid, the group's Washington representative, who participated in the White House session. "The administration is still interested in supporting democratic processes and groups in Syria."
On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton accused Syria and Iran of violating a U.N. embargo on arms shipments to Lebanese factions. Citing a new U.N. report, Bolton said the two countries are "actively trying to destabilize the democratically elected government of Lebanon."
How to deal with Syria has been the subject of intense debate inside and outside the Bush administration.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who's leading a high-level review of U.S. policy in Iraq, said in a television interview last month that the United States should engage Syria and Iran. Washington has no diplomatic ties with Iran, and President Bush cut off high-level contacts with Syria following the February 2005 assassination of Hariri.
Baker's panel has conferred with Syrian and Iranian officials.
Senior State Department officials share Baker's view, arguing that nothing else is working, said two U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss internal government debates. But aides on the White House's National Security Council and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney oppose engagement with Damascus, the officials said.
The deteriorating political situation in Lebanon has prompted alarm in Washington and Israel recently.
At the White House, the National Security Council staff produced an analysis this week that called for the United States to take "urgent steps" to shore up the Saniora government, according to a U.S. official, who read the paper, but requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss it.
(John Walcott contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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