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Rice Calls Report on Hariri Assassination 'Deeply Troubling'


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the U.N. report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, implicating Syrian and Lebanese officials, is "deeply troubling." She says the focus of U.S. diplomacy on the issue will be in the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. officials had anticipated that the report would link Syrian and Lebanese security figures to the Hariri killing, and Secretary Rice has consulted with top Russian, British and French officials in recent days, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on possible follow-up action.

The secretary gave her first reaction to the report of U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis in her home state of Alabama, where she is hosting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for the weekend.

She told reporters traveling with her that even an initial reading of the report is deeply troubling, given that it implicates Syrian officials, and that there are clear indications Syria has not been cooperating with the U.N. inquiry.

She said the United States will be consulting other U.N. Security Council members over the next couple of days and that the council, which meets on the issue next week, will be the "focal point" for action.

There were more detailed comments in Washington by the State Department's chief Middle East official, David Welch.

Speaking at Washington's Foreign Press Center, Mr. Welch, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, said the main findings of the Mehlis inquiry have "grave implications:

"What are those elements? I'll repeat them again for you," said David Welch. "That there was a political motive for this crime. Number two, that there appears to have been a sophisticated conspiracy, the organization of which is detailed exhaustively in the report. Number three, it mentions false statements, lack of cooperation and rehearsed testimony and concludes there is probable cause, with all that that entails for prosecutor to state that there was a decision to murder Rafik Hariri, and that this could not have been taken without the approval of high-ranking Syrians, and could not have been organized without collusion with some of their Lebanese counterparts."

Mr. Welch said the United States stands with the Lebanese people, the families of the victims of the car-bomb attack on Mr. Hariri last February, and with the international community in calling for accountability for what he termed "this terrible act."

He noted that the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus shortly after the killing of the former prime minister, and has imposed some sanctions against the Damascus government under the Syria Accountability Act, approved by Congress two years ago.

More severe punitive measures under the legislation could still be imposed by President Bush. In addition to its concerns about the Hariri killing, the administration has said Syria has knowingly allowed Islamic militants to transit its territory to join the insurgency in Iraq, and supported so-called "rejectionist" Palestinian factions opposing peace efforts with Israel.

In Senate testimony earlier this week, Secretary Rice said the administration is on a diplomatic course with regard to both Syrian and Iranian activities concerning Iraq, but also would not rule out the possibility of using force, saying she would not foreclose presidential prerogatives.

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