U.S. backs calls for new Lebanon government

Oct 23, 2012, 3:41 PM EDT
ebanese soldiers drive by a portrait of assassinated official Wissam al-Hassan during a patrol in the Corniche al-Mazraa neighbourhood of the capital Beirut, on October 22, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Tuesday threw its support behind efforts by Lebanon's president to form a new government in the aftermath of last week's deadly car bombing in Beirut that many blame on Syria or its ally, Hezbollah.

The State Department said the U.S. believed it is time for the Lebanese people to choose a government that will counter the threat posed by the civil war in neighboring Syria, like Friday's bombing that killed an anti-Syrian intelligence official. But it also warned against any leadership changes leaving the country with a power vacuum.

"The export of instability from Syria threatens the security of Lebanon now more than ever," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

She said U.S. Ambassador Maura Connelly is meeting with Lebanese politicians this week to get a sense of what might be possible as President Michel Suleiman looks to revamp the government that is now dominated by the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement, a Syrian and Iranian proxy that the U.S. has designated a foreign terrorist organization.

"We've been making clear that we support the efforts of President Suleiman and other responsible leaders in Lebanon to build an effective government and to take the necessary next steps in the wake of the October 19th terrorist attack," Nuland said.

Hezbollah's role in the current government has badly complicated U.S.-Lebanese relations as Washington wants to support professional security forces that some believe could be compromised by the group. U.S. officials are barred from contact with Hezbollah members of the government.

However, until Tuesday the U.S. had steered clear of backing any specific remedy to the situation.

The new comments signaled that the United States believes government change may now be realistic, given anger over the bombing.

Nuland said the United States would not "prejudge" the outcome of the attempt to forge a new ruling coalition but stressed that Washington was very concerned by increasing political instability in Lebanon since the bombing and wanted to see the Lebanese take steps to calm the situation.

"This is obviously a Lebanese affair," she said. "And while we don't want a vacuum of a legitimate political authority, we do support this process that is now under way to produce a new government that's responsive to the needs of the Lebanese people."

Friday's assassination of intelligence officer Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan has stirred up sectarian violence in Lebanon, where people are deeply divided between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. Syria has intervened heavily in Lebanese affairs over the past decades and is blamed for the deaths of many prominent critics and anti-Syrian political figures.

Al-Hassan, a Sunni who challenged both Syria and Hezbollah, was one of Lebanon's most secretive figures, and until his death many Lebanese did not know what he looked like. Authorities said he was assassinated outside one of his secret offices where he used to meet with informants.