The United States said Thursday it has not changed its view of Lebanon's Hezbollah organization as a terrorist group despite its show of political support this week in Beirut. A State Department official said that for Hezbollah to be accepted as credible on the international scene, it will have to get out of the terrorism business.
Hezbollah flexed its political muscles by turning out hundreds of thousands of people in Beirut Tuesday for a demonstration praising Syria's military presence in Lebanon.
But senior Bush administration officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice say the show of support has not changed the U.S. view of the pro-Iranian group as a terrorist organization, and that it will not have real political credibility until it, as one official said, gets out of the terrorism game.
The remarks came as U.S. spokesmen rejected a New York Times report that the Bush administration had shifted policy by grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer Hezbollah into the Lebanese political mainstream.
A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said the United States has long accepted that Hezbollah, which has 12 deputies in the 128-member Lebanese parliament, is a political force in that country.
But he said it has both a political and a terrorist side, including attacks against Americans and the Middle East peace process, and that the United States will not deal with it as long as it is involved in terrorism.
He said getting Hezbollah to renounce terrorism is certainly desirable and something the United States will try to work toward, but it would be taking things too far at the moment to say U.S. officials are hopeful about it.
Earlier at a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said it is not the United States' role to say who should, or should not, take part in Lebanese politics.
But he said the process, in advance of parliamentary elections in May, should be free of pressure, coercion and intimidation by outside players, which is why the Bush administration is demanding that Syria heed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 and remove its military presence from the country.
"Clearly the Syrian presence of Syrian forces, and Syrian intelligence agents, is incompatible with a free, fair election untainted by outside interference," he said. "And that's that basis of 1559. That's why we keep repeating the need for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon as well as Syrian intelligence apparatuses."
Spokesman Ereli had a relatively mild response to Wednesday's re-election by the Lebanese parliament of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, less than two weeks after he resigned in the face of massive public demonstrations against the Syrian military presence.
Mr. Ereli noted that when Mr. Karami stepped aside February 28, he said that it was because he could no longer be effective, and the spokesman said if there was ever a time when Lebanon needed effective governance, it is now.
He said the United States calls on Mr. Karami to rise to the challenge and work to fulfill the aspirations of the Lebanese people.
The senior diplomat here said the return of Mr. Karami is certainly not a step forward and is at best a neutral development, but he said there is now a clear popular demand for change in Lebanon that has to be accommodated by the new government.