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Rice refuses to meet with Lebanon's pro-Syrian president

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise, lightening-quick trip to Lebanon on Thursday, hoping to further isolate neighboring Syria and shore up Lebanon's fragile sovereignty.

Rice, taking a half-day out from a tour of Egypt and Persian Gulf countries, met under heavy security with pro-Western Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and several other leaders.

She pointedly snubbed President Emile Lahoud, who's close to Syria, which had troops in Lebanon for nearly 30 years until they were pulled out last year under international pressure. A campaign in Parliament is under way to oust Lahoud.

After meeting Siniora in the 19th-century Grand Serail building on a Beirut hilltop, Rice said the Bush administration would continue pressing for "a fully sovereign and democratic Lebanon."

"We know the course ahead is a difficult one and there are hard things to do," she added.

Pressed by Lebanese journalists, Rice denied that Washington was trying to help usher Lahoud—whom some see as a remnant of Syria's long dominance here—out of office.

"It's up to the Lebanese people to decide who will lead Lebanon," she replied. Rice then said she was sure the Lebanese "want a state that is forward-looking."

Her four-hour visit came barely more than a year after popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. His death, in which top Syrian officials are suspected to have played a role, prompted massive demonstrations and a U.N. demand for Syria to withdraw its troops.

Rice demanded anew that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad cooperate fully with a U.N. inquiry into the assassination that's being run by Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz.

There have been unconfirmed reports that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are crafting a compromise initiative that would permit Assad to testify before the inquiry on the condition that his testimony remain secret.

Last spring, the Bush administration held up Lebanon as a success in its strategy to democratize the Arab world. Since then, political and economic progress has flagged, bombings have become frequent and elections put a member of the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah—which Washington has designated a terrorist group—into the Cabinet.

Aboard her aircraft en route to Beirut, Rice said Lebanon had made enormous strides since Hariri's assassination. "In the historical sweep of what has happened to Lebanon in this period of time, a year is a flash," she said.

Rice moved about Beirut under extraordinary security. She traveled from the airport and from stop to stop in a fast-moving caravan of heavily armored Chevrolet Suburbans, tires squealing as they careened down the road. They were accompanied by armed Lebanese security forces in an open truck.

Efforts to keep her visit a secret beforehand failed. News of Rice's plans was broadcast on Hezbollah's TV station, al-Manar.

Rice met with the late Hariri's son, Saad, and Druze sect leader Walid Jumblatt in a neighborhood in which one building still showed pockmarks from gunfire in Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

She left later for the United Arab Emirates to seek the cooperation of Arab Persian Gulf countries in confronting Iran over its nuclear programs.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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