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U.S., France ratchet up pressure on Syria

LONDON—The United States accused Syria on Tuesday of playing a role in last week's deadly suicide bombing against Israel, as the Bush administration, backed by France, sought to tighten the screws on Damascus on multiple fronts.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said for the first time that the United States had "firm evidence" that a Syrian-based militant group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was involved in the Tel Aviv bombing Friday. It killed five Israelis and shattered an Israeli-Palestinian truce.

"The Syrians have a lot to answer for," Rice told ABC News in an interview here, where she was attending an international conference to support an eventual Palestinian state.

While some members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad had taken credit for the bombing, the Bush administration hadn't until now pointed a finger of blame at Damascus. U.S. officials declined to specify what the evidence was.

Syria is under growing international pressure after last month's assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That event sparked popular protests that helped bring down Lebanon's Syria-backed government Monday.

Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier issued a toughly worded statement Tuesday demanding again that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution. The two countries insisted that Syria withdraw not just its roughly 15,000 troops but also its extensive security and intelligence apparatus.

The statement appeared to be an attempt to pre-empt a move by Syrian President Bashar Assad to remove his troops from Lebanon or redeploy them to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley while leaving other levers of control in place.

Assad said in an interview with Time magazine, released Tuesday, that the withdrawal "should be very soon and maybe in the next few months."

Middle East diplomats say the intelligence network is more crucial than the troop presence in maintaining Syria's control over its smaller neighbor.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which passed in September, calls on "all remaining foreign forces" to withdraw from Lebanon, seemingly a reference to military units. But it also insists on an end to "foreign interference or influence," which could cover nonmilitary forces.

The Syrian government exercises most of its authority over Lebanon's government and security forces through pervasive networks run by Syrian military intelligence.

"They could pull all of their troops out of Lebanon, and if they kept the intelligence presence there, they would still be able to know everything of importance that was going on and be able to continue controlling key aspects of policymaking and political life," said Flynt L. Leverett, a Middle East expert who's worked at the White House and the CIA and is now at the Brookings Institution, a public policy institute.

A former senior CIA officer with extensive experience in the Middle East, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that a Syrian withdrawal could create a power vacuum and new instability in Lebanon.

Syrian intelligence officers control agents in Lebanese government ministries, the army and police forces, and use rewards, intimidation and violence to ensure compliance by politicians, religious leaders, journalists and others, experts said.

Syrian intelligence officers also oversee the delivery of Iranian-supplied weapons to Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group that controls Lebanon's southern border with Israel.

According to the State Department's 2004 report on international human rights, which was released Monday, Syrian intelligence officers have shielded "supporters" from prosecution in Lebanese courts and used "informant networks and monitored telephones to gather information on their perceived adversaries."

"There were credible reports that Lebanese security forces personnel detained individuals on the instruction of Syrian intelligence agencies," it said.

Rice said the United States was talking to France and others about deploying election observers or other monitors to Lebanon to help pave the way for parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for May.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that it's "inevitable" that Syrian forces will depart from Lebanon.

Syria sent its troops to Lebanon in 1976 to help quell a civil war.

At the London conference, Rice called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take stronger steps to eradicate terrorist infrastructure.

The conference brought 30 nations and international organizations together to give political and financial support to Palestinian reforms that could lead to an independent Palestinian state. Israel didn't attend.

In return, Abbas' Palestinian Authority pledged to take a series of specific steps, ranging from stronger anti-corruption measures to implementing civil service and pension laws to unifying its multiple, overlapping security services.

Abbas again condemned the Tel Aviv bombing. He called on Israel to begin serious peace negotiations, saying the lack of progress could cause the security situation to collapse.

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050301 Lebanon Syria, 20050301 Lebanon politics

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