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Bush Meets With Lebanese Prime Minister


President Bush says he backs democratic forces in Lebanon and wants those responsible for the assassination of a former prime minister brought to justice.

President Bush says the United States strongly supports a free, independent, and sovereign Lebanon, following the withdrawal of Syrian troops on the heels of popular protests last year.

"We took great joy in seeing the Cedar Revolution," said Mr. Bush. "We understand that the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the street to express their desire to be free required courage, and we support the desire of the people to have a government responsive to their needs and a government that is free, truly free."

The Syrian withdrawal was also prompted by international pressure following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who opposed Syria's nearly 30-year presence in Lebanon. Initial investigations by U.N. officials point to Syrian involvement in his killing, an allegation the government in Damascus denies.

President Bush again called for those responsible to be brought to justice. Standing with the president outside the White House, Prime Minister Siniora thanked him for his support for a full investigation, and says he is trying his best to maintain good relations with Syria, a neighbor with whom he says Lebanon has both a long history and a future.

"We are very keen on maintaining cordial and healthy relations, based on mutual respect and parity," said Mr. Siniora.

The prime minister says his government has made major changes since Syria's withdrawal.

"We are there to meet the expectations of the people to have a united, liberal, free country, and, at the same time, prosperous economy," he added.

President Bush says Lebanon has a long history of enterprise and prosperity, and he is confident that, if allowed to be free, Beirut will regain its place as a center of finance, culture and the arts.

"There is no question in my mind that Lebanon can serve as a great example for what is possible in the broader Middle East, that, out of the tough times the country has been through will rise a state that shows that it is possible for people of religious difference to live side-by-side in peace, to show that it is possible for people to put aside past histories to live together in a way that the people want, which is for there to be peace and hope and opportunity," added Mr. Bush.

President Bush regularly cites political changes in Lebanon and elections in Iraq as evidence of broader democratic change in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Siniora is expected to meet later this week with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

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