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US Calls Karami Resignation a Political Opportunity for Lebanon

The United States Wednesday said the resignation of pro-Syrian Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami is an opportunity for Lebanon to move forward toward a new government and elections. It says the political impasse in Beirut is no excuse for delaying elections and a Syrian troop withdrawal.

U.S. officials have been watching the weeks-long political crisis in Lebanon with increasing anxiety.

And despite news reports casting the Karami resignation as a setback, the Bush administration says the turn of events presents a new chance for progress.

Mr. Karami, who first resigned in February amid anti-Syrian demonstrations, announced in Beirut Wednesday he was stepping aside again after efforts to name a cabinet reached a dead end.

In a written statement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the departure of Mr. Karami, a veteran pro-Syrian politician, presents an opportunity to move forward.

She said the United States urges that the will of the Lebanese people be respected and that a new government be formed as quickly as possible and that parliamentary elections be held as planned by the end of May.

Ms. Rice said that further delays are unnecessary and that Lebanon must be allowed to determine its own future, free of intimidation and all foreign influence.

Officials here have suggested that Syria, which retains heavy influence in Beirut despite its partial troop pullout, might be manipulating the crisis to try to delay the elections and renege on its promise to finish its withdrawal before the vote.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said it is clearly possible to form a new government and hold the election on time, and the Syrians should complete the withdrawal of all troops and intelligence agents immediately:

"We want to see the elections take place by the end of May as they were planned,” he said. “We want to see first of all, the first condition for that to happen, is for the Syrians to get out right away, to make sure that the Lebanese people can have a free and fair election. We want to see that happen, we want to see elections on time, and I think the point is that there's no reason to wait. They shouldn't use the inability of one person to form a cabinet to be an excuse to delay or prevaricate."

Mr. Boucher said the United States believes that last year's U.N. Security Council Resolution 15-59, calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, applies also to Iran, which has maintained a presence of its Revolutionary Guards in that country for two decades.

A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here confirmed a Washington Post report Wednesday that quoted U.S. and European officials as saying Iran has withdrawn the vast majority of those elite troops in recent years.

The diplomat said the newspaper account, that the Iranian troop presence now numbers only between 15 and 50 personnel, is more or less correct.

However, he said Iranian influence in Lebanon is not just a function of numbers, and that Tehran continues to lend material and political support to terrorist groups that operate there.