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Bush criticizes Syrian actions in Lebanon

December 21, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush accused Syria on Thursday of contributing to the deepening political crisis in Lebanon, declaring that he had lost patience with Syrian President Bashar Assad "a long time ago."

Bush said Damascus was destabilizing its western neighbor, which has been unable to organize a new government for the last month, and demanded that the Syrians "stay out of Lebanon."

The United States has been siding with a coalition of pro-Western political groups in Lebanon that are struggling with pro-Syrian factions and others over the choice of a president and composition of a new government.

The U.S. allies in Lebanon had been disheartened by Washington's eagerness to have Syria attend last month's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md. They took the move as a sign that Washington was moving toward a more conciliatory approach with Damascus.

Bush's tougher language at a news conference Thursday appeared to be an effort to repair Washington's ties with the pro-Western groups, analysts said.

David Schenker, a former Pentagon Mideast specialist, said the president's language reflected a "recognition of the damage done" by the Bush administration's effort to bring Syria to Annapolis.

"But it may be too little, too late," added Schenker, who now directs the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Bush condemned Syria on other scores as well, saying that Assad "houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah; suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon."

On other issues, Bush said he was not satisfied by the political progress in Iraq, but insisted that the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was making headway.

"To say nothing's happening is just not the case," Bush said, while acknowledging that the government has not adopted legislation that the U.S. sees as essential to reconciliation.

Bush avoided criticism of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, despite growing Western concern that Putin is taking undemocratic steps to preserve his power, and is suppressing human rights and press freedoms.

Bush said he would withhold judgment on what it would mean if Putin becomes prime minister. The fundamental question, Bush said, is what Russia will look like 10 years from now.

In addition, Bush repeated his insistence that American allies in Europe take on a greater share of the responsibility for combat and other tough assignments in Afghanistan. He praised the contributions of the Canadians, British, Australians, Danes and Dutch.

"My biggest concern is that people say, 'Well, we're kind of tired of Afghanistan; therefore, we think we're going to leave,' " Bush said.

"It's going to take a while for this democratic experiment there in Afghanistan to work. And I believe it will."

paul.richter@latimes.com

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