updated 2/23/2006 4:16:41 AM ET 2006-02-23T09:16:41

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to politically volatile Lebanon on Thursday, amid efforts by anti-Syrian leaders to oust Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president and resolve a U.N. inquiry into the murder of a Lebanese politician.

Rice took no specific position on whether President Emile Lahoud should stay or go, but she noted pointedly that the Lebanese “need a presidency that looks forward, not back, and that defends Lebanese sovereignty.”

A top U.S. diplomat told reporters that Rice hopes to encourage the new government of Lebanon toward political reform and democracy.

Asked if Lahoud is an obstacle to that progress, Rice replied, “The Lebanese people will have to decide what the obstacles to their progress are, but I think they do want to look forward.”

Rice will meet with newly elected Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who has pursued a cautious policy of separation from Syria, and with a Christian leader wary of the drive to oust Lahoud.

Rice will not see Lahoud on this visit.

“My view is that the United States ought to be supporting the pro-Lebanese government,” Rice said. “We’ll be meeting with Prime Minister Saniora.

Timed visit
Rice’s visit was timed close to the anniversary this month of the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese politician who had tried to pry his country from 30 years of Syrian political domination.

Hariri’s death launched street protests that eventually forced Syrian troops from Lebanon last spring, but the United States claims that Syrian intelligence agents remain and that Damascus is still trying to meddle in Lebanese politics.

Rice met with Lahoud on her first visit to Lebanon as secretary of state last year, but made clear the visit was merely a pro forma nicety. Her first stops on that trip were the Hariri family compound and his burial shrine.

Buoyed by street protests marking the Hariri anniversary, the anti-Syrian coalition launched a campaign against Lahoud that could include strikes and street protests, and possibly a march on the presidential palace.

There are warnings of counter-demonstrations, which could lead to clashes. Lahoud on Monday warned that “security is a red line,” implicitly hinting at the use of force.

Lahoud, Damascus’ top ally in Beirut, was elected by Parliament before the Syrian pullout. His term runs through 2007 and he has pledged to remain until the last moment.

Lahoud won a three-year extension of his term in 2004 under what was widely seen as Syrian pressure, and anti-Syrian groups are looking to reverse that.

The anti-Syrian coalition says Lahoud is politically isolated at home and diplomatically isolated abroad. A U.S.-backed 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution called for new presidential elections.

Serving Syria's interests?
Anti-Syrian groups say Lahoud serves Syria’s interests, implicitly blaming him for a series of bombings and assassinations that killed three anti-Syrian figures, an accusation Lahoud rejects. Four generals, including the commander of Lahoud’s Presidential Guards and two of his intelligence aides, are charged with involvement in Hariri’s murder.

“The issue of the presidency should be done with,” Samir Geagea, one of the anti-Syrian leaders, told reporters Sunday. “It must be rescued from its current state.”

Anti-Syrian lawmakers have a slim majority in the parliament, but they don’t have the necessary two-thirds hold on the legislature to oust Lahoud by their self-imposed deadline of March 14.

The anti-Syrian coalition plans two petitions in coming days that do not require a two-thirds majority: one stating that lawmakers were threatened by Syria to vote for the extension, and another declaring the presidential post is vacant because the extension was illegal. The coalition would then elect a new leader.

To prevail, the anti-Syrian coalition will have to win over other factions. It also must have the consent of Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the influential head of the Maronite Catholic Church with whom Rice also planned a meeting.

Under Lebanon’s sectarian division of power, the president should be a Maronite.

Sfeir, fearful of violence and a power vacuum that could threaten the Maronites’ hold on the post, has cautioned against removing the president through street protests and before an agreement is reached on a replacement.

“This alignment of one group against the other, as if an expected war is awaiting to be waged ... does not bode well,” the widely respected patriarch said in a Sunday sermon. “It heralds imminent evil.”

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