Siniora heads to US seeking Bush backing

BEIRUT (AP) — Prime Minister Fuad Siniora headed to Washington on Monday for a meeting with US President George W. Bush where he was expected to seek American political and economic support for Lebanon’s efforts to extend its authority over all Lebanese territory and revive the war-shattered economy. Siniora, a member of the anti-Syrian majority coalition, will be in the United States for four days and was invited by the American leader.

Ahead of the US trip, Hizbollah officials warned Siniora against making commitments to Washington regarding disarmament of the organisation.

Accompanied by the ministers of finance, economy, justice and foreign affairs, Siniora was scheduled to meet Bush at the White House on Tuesday. He will also hold talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials before meeting in New York with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Saniora’s talks with Bush and Annan will focus on a 2004 UN Security Council resolution that called for the Shiite Muslim Hizbollah group and Palestinian fighters in Lebanon to disarm and a UN investigation into last year’s assassination offormer prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

“Prime Minister Saniora will ask President Bush for political support to help the Lebanese government in asserting its authority over all Lebanese territory,” a government official, close to Siniora, told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.

The official said Saniora particularly wanted the US administration to exert pressure on Israel to vacate the Shebaa Farms, a disputed parcel of territory where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.

“An Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms will help the Lebanese government to extend its authority in the border area,” the official said.

Since Israel withdrew its troops from a border strip in south Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation, Hizbollah fighters have been virtually controlling border areas and occasionally attack Israeli troops in the Shebaa Farms. Lebanon says the Shebaa Farms, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, is Lebanese territory.

But Israel and the United Nations say the area is Syrian. The official said Saniora would also ask the Bush administration for economic support for a donors’ conference to raise funds to stimulate Lebanon’s sluggish economy. The conference was originally planned to be held in Beirut in December but has been postponed due to political turmoil in Lebanon.

It will be Siniora’s first meeting with Bush who has repeatedly declared firm US support for a Lebanon free of Syrian influence.

Siniora was a longtime trusted aide of Hariri whose February 14, 2005 assassination triggered a major change in Lebanese politics. That, coupled with international pressure, led to the final Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon in April last year, ending nearly a three-decade domination of its smaller neighbour.

Many Lebanese blame Syria for the killing of Hariri. A UN probe has implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri’s killing. Syria has denied involvement in the murder. Siniora has promised political and economic reforms. He faces the difficult task of salvaging the country’s economy, suffering from zero growth and a foreign debt of more than $38 billion, or more than 180 per cent of the gross domestic product — making it one of the highest in the world.

Siniora’s government is also coming under US and UN pressure to implement UN Resolution 1559 that calls for Hizbollah and Palestinian fighters to disarm. On the eve of his US trip, Hizbollah warned Siniora against making any commitments to Washington regarding the group’s disarmament.

“We call for not making any commitment to the United States or others,” Hizbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah told a rally in south Lebanon Sunday. “We are not against Lebanon’s openness to the international community and international relations. But we warn against any commitments and attitudes that go beyond the consensus reached during the [inter-Lebanese] dialogue conference and the commitments made in the government policy statement.” Hizbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told a Beirut rally last week that “the real American project in Lebanon is to start a civil war.” Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has refused to give up its weapons, saying arms are still needed to liberate the Shebaa Farms and to defend Lebanon against any Israeli threats.

The group, which holds seats in parliament and has two members in the Cabinet, is labelled a terrorist organisation by the United States and Israel. But the Lebanese government considers Hizbollah a legitimate resistance movement fighting Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.

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