U.S. expresses outrage at Syria, recalls ambassador

February 16, 2005|By Megan K. Stack and Rania Abouzeid | Megan K. Stack and Rania Abouzeid,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DAMASCUS, Syria - The U.S. ambassador to Syria was called back to Washington yesterday as anger swelled against Damascus after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In Beirut, where Harari was killed by a huge car bomb Monday, livid mourners spilled into the streets, cursing Syria while Quranic verse filled the air. Mobs attacked Syrian laborers in southern Lebanon and burned tires outside a Syrian government building in Beirut.

The Lebanese army went on alert for further violence, and barricaded trucks with beds full of soldiers appeared on street corners throughout Beirut.

It's unclear who engineered the attack that killed Hariri and at least nine others, but his death has pitched Syria into deeper isolation and vulnerability. Suspicion for the explosion has landed squarely on Syria, an embattled nation now poised to pay a diplomatic and political price for the billionaire construction magnate's death.

Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, denied involvement yesterday in an interview on CNN: "Syria has nothing to benefit from what has happened."

But the killing is expected to harden international resolve to force Syrian troops out of Lebanon and to strip Syria of support from sometime defenders including France and Jordan. Damascus has for months ignored a U.N. Security Council mandate to withdraw its forces from neighboring Lebanon.

Defiant Syrian officials have claimed that smaller, weaker Lebanon, whose current president is staunchly allied with Syria, depends on Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents to keep the peace among various Lebanese factions.

The bombing shattered the logic of that argument. With or without Syrian involvement, somebody killed one of the nation's most celebrated politicians with explosives in broad daylight in the busy city center.

"Yesterday's bombing calls into question the stated reason behind this presence of Syrian security forces: Lebanon's internal security," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher at a news conference in Washington announcing the recall of ambassador Margaret Scobey. "The Lebanese people must be free to express their political preferences and choose their own representatives without intimidation and the threat of violence."

At the United Nations, the Security Council condemned the assassination and asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan to investigate its cause and consequences. The United States asked the council to consider measures to punish the perpetrators, an American official said, which could pave the way for another resolution demanding that Syria remove its troops.

Anne W. Patterson, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, "Syria has got to get out of Lebanon. ... I think that message has been very specific and it's time for Syria to listen to that now."

U.S. officials did not specifically blame Syria for the killing, but Patterson said it was a direct result of Syria's presence in Lebanon. "This is only the most recent and frankly the most horrific demonstration of the effects of that foreign interference," she said.

The decision to recall ambassador Scobey appeared to be part of a broader Bush administration strategy to ratchet up pressure on Damascus to engage more seriously on issues including the supply of arms and fighters to the insurgency in Iraq and to militant groups working to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The administration has also labeled the presence of 16,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon as a source of instability, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. relationship with Syria was "worsening."

"The withdrawal of the ambassador ... relates to, unfortunately, the fact that the relationship has been for some time not moving in a positive direction; but this event in Lebanon, of course, is the proximate cause of the withdrawal," Rice said in Washington after meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister.

"We're not laying blame," Rice said of Hariri's slaying. "It needs to be investigated. That's the important point. However ... Syria is in interference in the affairs of Lebanon. There are Syrian forces in Lebanon. Syria operates out of Lebanon."

The threat of further bloodshed in Lebanon is real, no matter how Syria responds to increased pressures to remove its soldiers, who have been in Lebanon for nearly three decades.

If Syria continues to dig in its heels in a neighboring nation it regards as strategically indispensable, the deep fissions that split Lebanon over the question of the Syrian occupation could turn more violent. Worries over internal strife are particularly keen because parliamentary elections, scheduled for this spring, are widely seen as a referendum on Syria's presence.

There is also a fear that if forced by international pressures to abandon Lebanon, Syria could stage attacks to prove that Lebanon can't protect itself without Syrian support.

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