France, U.S. Buddies Vs. Syria

Crystal Gale Mangum was arrested late Wednesday on charges she assaulted her boyfriend
France and the United States, still smarting from a bitter diplomatic spat over the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, have become allies in another Middle East dispute involving perceived Syrian meddling in Lebanon.

The two Security Council powers last week helped force through a resolution calling to an end to foreign intervention in Lebanon's affairs.

Last week, Lebanon's Parliament amended the Lebanese constitution to permit President Emile Lahoud, who is backed by Syria, to stay in office another three years, despite domestic and international objections.

While Syria is a known power broker in neighboring Lebanon with thousands of troops there, the move to amend the constitution was seen as a sign of direct Syrian control over Lebanese politics.

France, the United States and seven other countries backed a U.N. resolution calling for "strict respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity, and political independence of Lebanon under the sole and exclusive authority of the Government of Lebanon throughout Lebanon.

It also called for "all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon."

For France, the vote pitted Paris against the government of its former colony, while for the United States, it represented a new confrontation with a country Washington accuses of backing terrorism.

"It's clear the Lebanese parliamentarians have been pressured and even threatened by Syria and its agents to make them comply," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.

"This makes a mockery of democratic principles and we would hope that they would be allowed to make their decision openly and fairly and, in that way, to have a free and fair presidential election process," he said.

Russia and China, which have Security Council vetoes, and four other states abstained from the vote, complaining that it trespassed upon a country's internal politics. The 9-6 tally was the closest margin by which a Security Council resolution can pass.

In Beirut, four Cabinet ministers resigned Monday to protest the extension of Lahoud's term. The ministers' resignations were not expected to bring down the 30-man government of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, although there has been talk of an upcoming reshuffle.

Lahoud convened an unscheduled meeting Monday evening with Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the presidential palace to discuss the fate of the Cabinet. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the men were discussing reassigning the portfolios of the resigning ministers.

Following the 40-minute meeting, Hariri said the fate of the Cabinet will be decided after his Sept. 17 return from a trip abroad. Asked whether a full Cabinet reshuffle was possible soon, Hariri told reporters, "It is not ruled out. After my return, this matter will be discussed."

Three of the four resigning ministers — Economy Minister Marwan Hamadeh, Culture Minister Ghazi Aridi and Minister of Refugee Affairs Abdullah Farhat — were members of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt's party. The fourth was Environment Minister Faris Bweiz, an independent.

Jumblatt told reporters the decision to pull out his ministers conformed with his 14-member parliamentary bloc's decision to oppose the extension of Lahoud's term.

Bweiz, who also opposed amending the constitution, said: "It is illogical that I stay in government."

In their meeting, Lahoud, Hariri and Berri were discussing reassigning the economy, culture, refugee affairs and environment portfolios to other ministers, a government official said on condition of anonymity. The official ruled out the possibility of a complete Cabinet reshuffle in the wake of the resignations.

Lebanon, which considered the Security Council resolution interference in its internal affairs, said it will work with the United Nations and others to explain its position.

In Syria on Monday, Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Hassan Turkmani condemned the Security Council resolution during a speech in the northern city of Aleppo, saying it was "issued under American pressure."

The resolution, he said in comments carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency, was an attempt to take away Lebanese right to decide the matter in Parliament "as if the United States was wiser than the Lebanese themselves about their own country and interests."

Syrian troops have been in Lebanon since civil war broke out there in 1975 between Christians and Palestinians.