US: Syria May Interfere in Lebanon Vote
by The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A State Department official said Thursday that Syria or its supporters may use violence to interfere in Lebanon's upcoming presidential elections.
"Interference or intimidation in the electoral process is unacceptable to the United States and to the international community," David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told senators.
Syria cannot hope to improve relations with the U.S. or play an influential role in the Mideast unless it heeds the warning, Welch said in a statement and in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
Lebanon's current president is pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, whose term expires Nov. 24. The country's deeply divided parliament tries again to pick a president on Monday.
Syria has pulled its troops from Lebanon under U.N. pressure but maintains a strong interest in the country through pro-Syrian politicians and, according to U.S. officials, intermittent shipment of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. The State Department designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Welch said Syria has a government "that strives to undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and security through pro-Syrian proxies and partners" and that "continues to harbor and support terrorists and terrorist organizations."
"It is time," he said, "for the Syrian government to show it is willing to be a responsible member in the community of nations."
Ahead of Lebanon's elections, Welch said the U.S. is "very concerned that in the next few weeks Syria or its supporters will attempt to manipulate the outcome through violence, intimidation or an obstinate refusal to participate in the electoral process. These concerns are not unfounded."
On several occasions, Welch said, Syrian officials promised "to take action against the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, end their interference in Lebanon, expel Palestinian terrorist leaders from Damascus and to end Syrian state sponsorship of terrorism."
So far, he said, "the Syrian regime has yet to demonstrate the necessary willingness to reorient its behavior back toward international norms."