The Bush administration is recalling U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus for urgent consultations, in a move the State Department says underlines the United States profound outrage over Monday's killing of Mr. Hariri, which it terms a heinous act of terrorism.
U.S. officials are not saying Damascus was responsible for the car-bomb assassination of Mr. Hariri, a businessman-turned-politician who was popular in Washington for his independence despite Syria's heavy influence in Lebanon.
But State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the killing calls into question the rationale behind Syria's continued military presence in Lebanon, which is, nominally, to reinforce that country's security.
"The Syrian presence in Lebanon is not right," he said. "The Security Council has said repeatedly that they should withdraw, they should leave the Lebanese to run their own politics, to handle their own affairs. The only excuse for that presence has been that somehow it provided internal security for Lebanon. Unfortunately, the very tragic bombing yesterday shows that that's just plain not true."
Syria first sent troops into Lebanon under an Arab League mandate at the height of the country's civil war in the 1970s and still has about 14,000 troops there, despite an agreement in principle several years ago to withdraw.
Working with France, the United States was able to push a resolution through the U.N. Security Council last September calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.
Officials here said that as she departed Damascus, Ambassador Scobey delivered a strongly-worded note to the Syrian Foreign Ministry making it clear that the United States expects that country to act in accordance with Security Council Resolution 15-59.
Spokesman Boucher said U.S. officials have also raised repeatedly with Syrian authorities concerns over a number of other issues, including what is seen here as Syrian support for the Iraqi insurgency, and for extremist groups opposing efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"We're looking to stop people operating from Syria in support of insurgents in Iraq," said Mr. Boucher. "We're looking to stop the flow of arms through Syria to groups that are violently opposed to the peace process, that are trying to kill the Palestinian leadership as well as the Israelis. We're looking to stop the interference in Lebanese politics that keeps the Lebanese from standing on their own two feet, in running their own country."
Mr. Boucher said the longer Syrian authorities go on without addressing U.S. concerns, the more likely it becomes that the Bush administration will examine additional punitive action against that country through such tools as the Syria Accountability Act approved by Congress in 2003.
President Bush invoked some of the sanctions provided for in that law last May including a ban on most U.S. exports to Syria, but other more serious economic and political penalties were deferred.
Spokesman Boucher did not say when Ambassador Scobey might return to Syria but said the recall was not a permanent down-grade of relations.
He announced that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns will attend Mr. Hariri's funeral in Beirut as a gesture of respect for the former Prime Minister.
He said Mr. Burns would have courtesy meetings with Lebanese government leaders but was unaware of any plans for him to meet Syrian officials.
U.S. officials have not endorsed the call by French President Jacques Chirac for an international investigation of the Hariri assassination, saying they would first await results of a promised Lebanese inquiry.