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Rice Backs International Probe of Hariri Assassination

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday endorsed an international investigation of Monday's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Senate testimony, the secretary also said the U.S. ambassador to Syria, recalled for consultations, will remain in Washington indefinitely.

The Bush administration had not initially embraced an international probe of the Hariri assassination, as has been championed by French President Jacques Chirac.

But in her comments to Senators, which followed a telephone conversation with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, Ms. Rice endorsed such an inquiry.

She again said that while the United States is not assigning blame for the car-bomb killing, Syria bears a "special responsibility" for what happens in Lebanon because of its troop presence there.

"We do not know who is responsible for the bombing but there needs to be an international investigation of that. But the Syrians, given their position in Lebanon, given their interference in Lebanese affairs, given the fact that their forces are there, given the terrorists that operate in southern Lebanon with Syrian forces in close proximity to them, does put on the Syrians a special responsibility for the kind of destabilization that happened there," she said.

On Tuesday, Ms. Rice announced the recall for consultations of U.S. ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, in a move underlining U.S. outrage over the killing of Mr. Hariri, who was well respected in Washington as an independent voice in Lebanon, despite Syrian influence there.

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department budget for the coming year, Ms. Rice said Ambassador Scobey will remain in Washington for an "indeterminate" period as the administration assesses how seriously the Damascus government responds to the diplomatic move.

State Department officials have said the recall is not a permanent down-grade of diplomatic relations, but that the administration is examining the possibility of further sanctions against Damascus under the Syria Accountability Act, approved by Congress in 2003.

President Bush invoked some of the milder penalties provided for in that law last May. But at the hearing, there was bipartisan support for a tougher approach.

Republican Senator George Allen stressed Syria's link to Palestinian radicals trying to undermine recent Israeli-Palestinian peace contacts. He said the sanctions should be tightened to demonstrate to Syria that terrorism will not be tolerated.

"There is a worry that Syria, in funding some of these organizations would actually take out [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen or Mahmoud Abbas," she said. "This is a terrorist state, and I urge you not to let Syria off the hook. We may not know the specific complicity in this particular assassination. But they have 15,000 troops in Lebanon, which would like also to control their own destiny."

Ms. Rice told Senator Allen the administration is reviewing what else it might do to reinforce the ambassadorial re-call, which she termed a "strong signal" to Damascus.

She expressed hope U.S. friends and allies will respond in a similar way, saying that would cause the Syrians to "worry more" about their political and economic isolation, not just from the United States, but from others as well.