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U.S. Recalls Ambassador to Syria as Suspicions Over Bombing Grow

February 16, 2005|Megan K. Stack and Rania Abouzeid | Special to The Times

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

In Beirut, where Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb Monday, livid mourners spilled into the tense streets, cursing Syria while Koranic 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, and flatbed trucks loaded with soldiers appeared on street corners throughout Beirut.

It is unclear who engineered the attack that killed Hariri and at least nine others, but his death has pitched Syria deeper into isolation and vulnerability. Suspicions have landed squarely on this country, which may pay a diplomatic and political price for the billionaire construction magnate's death.

Hariri, a relative moderate, quit as prime minister in October in protest of Syria's tampering in Lebanese affairs.

Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustafa, denied that his country was involved. "Syria has nothing to benefit from what has happened," he said in an interview on CNN.

But the assassination is expected to harden international resolve to force Syrian troops out of Lebanon and to strip Syria of support from nations that have been known to defend it, including France and Jordan.

Damascus has for months ignored a United Nations Security Council mandate to withdraw its forces from neighboring Lebanon.

Syrian officials have said that the smaller, weaker country, whose current president and many other leaders are staunch allies, depends on Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents to keep the peace among Lebanese factions.

The bombing shattered the logic of that argument. With or without Syrian involvement, someone managed to kill one of the nation's most celebrated politicians with about 650 pounds of explosives in broad daylight in the bustling city center.

"Yesterday's bombing calls into question the stated reason behind this presence of Syrian security forces: Lebanon's internal security," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a Washington news conference 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 U.N., the Security Council condemned the assassination and asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan to investigate its cause and consequences. The U.S. asked the council to consider measures to punish the perpetrators, an American official said. The move could pave the way for another resolution demanding that Syria withdraw its troops.

Anne W. Patterson, the acting U.S. ambassador to the U.N., 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 Scobey appeared to be part of a broader Bush administration strategy to ratchet up pressure on Damascus to engage more seriously on such issues as its suspected support of the insurgency in Iraq and militant groups working to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The administration has also labeled the presence of 16,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon a source of instability, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the relationship between the United States and 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 bombing provided the U.S. with a rare opportunity to work with France, with which Washington has had frosty relations since the invasion of Iraq.

The U.S. worked with France on the Security Council statement condemning the assassination, and the administration also said it was prepared to seriously study any detailed proposal offered by French President Jacques Chirac, who has called for an international investigation into the assassination.

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

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