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US Official Renews Concerns About Syrian Involvement in Lebanon 

A U.S. official has told Congress the United States still has very serious concerns about ongoing Syrian involvement in Lebanon, despite the withdrawal earlier this year of Syrian regular army troops. The official and other witnesses at a congressional hearing also discussed the role in Lebanon of Hezbollah, which the U.S. government still considers a terrorist organization:

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, says Washington believes Syria continues to meddle in Lebanon's affairs.

"President Assad had declared that his forces were out. We do not agree with that statement. While the formed military units appear to have withdrawn, we believe there remains a covert intelligence presence on the part of Syria inside Lebanon. We also see a campaign of intimidation and violence and threats of violence and most recently a very obvious overt campaign of closure, economic strangulation of the border," he said.

While the Bush administration is deeply disturbed by what Mr. Welch calls Syrian interference in Lebanon's internal affairs, he adds to the list of concerns Syria's relationship with extremist Palestinian groups, and its failure to exert control over Syria's border with Iraq.

Lebanon's Prime Minister-elect, Fouad Siniora, this week defended the role in his country of Hezbollah, a group the United States lists among terrorist organizations, but which now has 14 seats in Lebanon's parliament.

Asked about this, Mr. Welch responded cautiously, but added Washington wants to see Lebanon's government disarm all militia groups, which would include the Hezbollah.

California Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos believes it is far past time for Lebanon's army to do just that:

"There is absolutely no reason in the world why Lebanon's military cannot disarm Hezbollah, control the nation's borders, and assume a long overdue and effective role in the fight against terrorism," he said.

Questions about Hezbollah led to others regarding the role of Iran. "We have some worries, we have had them before and we continue to have them, that the Iranians maintain personnel in association with Hezbollah inside of Lebanon.," said Mr. Welch.

Syria's involvement in Lebanon was also addressed by Rima Merhi, group coordinator for the Inter-University Project, who spoke by way of a satellite video link from Beirut.

"Syria is far from being out of Lebanon in practical terms. They continue to hold the country hostage, not only by closing the borders to Lebanese goods and arresting fishermen, but also by assassinating prominent writers and terrorizing the country with mysterious explosions. The Syrians clearly continue to have their agents within the Lebanese security apparatus," she said.

At the same time, she rejects descriptions of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization impeding Lebanon's development:

"Hezbollah is not inhibiting the Lebanese state. Rather Hezbollah is taking the place, is filling the vacuum of a largely incompetent state that fails to reach out to the suburbs of Lebanon, to these largely under-privileged Shiite communities," she said.

Integrating Hezbollah into Lebanon's government and society, she says, is preferable to chaos that would result from alienating the country's Shiite population.

Another witness, Lebanese political analyst and writer Paul Salem, says Lebanon faces a complex situation in the wake of Syria's military withdrawal and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, but adds the fact that there is a now a functioning government is important progress to build on.