U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday she welcomes a new power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon even though it increased the power of Hezbollah militants at the expense of U.S.-backed moderates.
"Obviously in any compromise there are compromises," Rice said during a surprise visit to meet Lebanon's new consensus choice for president. The election of former army chief, Michel Suleiman, last month is the clearest sign that Lebanon stepped back from the brink and that the deal with Iranian-backed Hezbollah is taking hold.
Hezbollah's ascendancy is a bitter pill for the U.S., which is worried that Iran's influence is spreading in the Middle East and had spent millions backing the Lebanese government for three years.
Rice's blessing is a sign that the Bush administration has accepted that Western-backed democratic leaders who helped Lebanon throw off three decades of Syrian domination could not govern the country alone. Lebanese politics operate on ambiguity and consensus, and in this case that meant giving veto power to Hezbollah, a militia and political force that the United States lists as a terrorist group.
"This was an agreement that I think served the interests of the Lebanese people," Rice said. "And since it served the interests of the Lebanese people, it served the interests of the United States. We support the democratically elected government of Lebanon."
Israel land dispute
Rice pleased her hosts by announcing U.S. backing for a new diplomatic push to resolve Lebanon's land dispute with Israel.
"The time has come to deal with the Chebaa Farms issue," Rice said, referring to the patch of land where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.
The U.S. envoy said the dispute should be settled with United Nations help. Rice did not respond when a reporter asked what pressure the United States would apply to Israel to relinquish the land it captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Lebanon claims the area and an Israeli withdrawal would give the Lebanese government a strong pretext to ask Hezbollah to lay down its arms. However, senior Hezbollah officials have repeatedly said that an Israeli withdrawal is not enough to justify disarming.
On Sunday, Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassim, told the private ANB television that only after Israel withdraws from Chebaa Farms, halts its military flights over Lebanon and releases Lebanese prisoners would Hezbollah be ready to discuss a military strategy to defend Lebanon against any possible Israeli attack.
Political bickering prevented parliament from electing a president 19 times, leaving the country without a president since pro-Syrian holdover Emile Lahoud left office in November. The Hezbollah-led opposition hamstrung the U.S.-backed government and, for a time, kept Prime Minister Fuad Saniora under siege in his office.
The power-sharing pact will probably allow Saniora to keep his job.
Rice saw Saniora, along with most of the other major players in Lebanon's complex religious- and sectarian-aligned political system during a few hours of meetings held under heavy security. She was the first high-level U.S. official to visit since the 18-month political crisis eased.
Shiite show of force
The standoff erupted into deadly street violence last month when Saniora's coalition tried to take political steps against Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons. The government backed down after the Shiite militant group demonstrated its military power.
Gunmen overran large parts of Muslim west Beirut in a show of force that left 67 people dead. It was the worst violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, and raised fears that a new war was imminent.
Although the violence gave Hezbollah new political leverage, the United States claims it has provoked a backlash against Hezbollah among many Lebanese who cannot stomach the group's use of force against fellow Lebanese.
"I know it has been a struggle for Lebanon to get to the election of its president," Rice said after her session with Suleiman.
"I come away knowing that Lebanon has elected a very fine man," Rice told reporters. "We look forward to working with him."
The political breakthrough that allowed Lebanon's parliament to elect Suleiman was reached in Qatar's capital, Doha, with the help of Arab mediators. The United States made its views known but did not participate in the Arab-brokered pact or try to block the deal.
Rice urged quick resolution of the remaining political agenda items — approval of Saniora as prime minister and the naming of a unity Cabinet.
A Hezbollah lawmaker said Rice's visit might disrupt formation of the unity government.
"Ms. Rice's visits have always been a disaster and a catastrophe for Lebanon because the U.S. government never works for the sake of the Lebanese people, but for the sake of their interests in the region as well as Israel's" interests, Hezbollah legislator Nawar al-Saheli told The Associated Press.