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Syria Is Thought To Still Have Violent Influence in Lebanon

Official results of the parliamentary elections in Lebanon indicate the anti-Syrian opposition has won control, breaking Syria's long domination of the country. Opposition leader Saad Hariri, son of the former Lebanese prime minister whose assassination sparked anti-Syria protests, claimed victory. These were the first elections since Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon after 30 years, and the results suggest Syria's influence has been weakened, if not entirely broken, in Lebanon.

The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister and billionaire businessman Rafik Hariri, blamed on Syria, led to protests calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and security services from the country. Syria withdrew its troops.

Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. says, "Syria's overt influence is obviously much less. The absence of a troop presence in Lebanon means their ability to control things at a the point of a gun has basically gone away."

Syria's intelligence services are also suspected in the murder of outspoken anti-Syrian journalist Samir Qasir, who was killed by a car bomb in the middle of Lebanon's month-long parliamentary elections.

David Mack is with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. "Are there Syrian intelligence officers in Lebanon? I would be astonished if there not Syrian Intelligence officers in Lebanon. Just as I would be astonished if there are not French intelligence officers, Israeli Intelligence officers, and U.S. intelligence officers."

Last week, an unnamed Bush administration source alleged that Syria had developed a hit list of senior Lebanese political figures and was operating inside the country, prompting stories in major U.S. newspapers.

President Bush commented on the articles during an Oval Office photo-opportunity. "Our message to Syria, and it is not just the message of the United States -- the United Nations has said the same thing, is in order for Lebanon to be free, is for Syria to not only remove her troops but remove her intelligence service as well."

The Bush administration has not provided evidence of the alleged hit list. David Mack says it is a way to keep pressure on Syria to further disengage from Lebanon.

Mr. Mack said, "They have had a week now to provide you folks in the media with a hit list. If in fact they have any independent confirmation of this. My strong suspicion is that that various Lebanese sources have claimed there is a hit list. We picked up the allegation because it is a convenient stick to beat Syria about."

Martin Indyk adds, "And so in terms of building the pressure I think they need to justify that policy by leaking the story about the hit list. Which has a certain credibility because there are two bodies now."

There have been other reports of Syrian intelligence officers operating in Palestinian refugee camps inside Lebanon. Last week Kofi Annan sent an envoy to Damascus to meet with President Bashir Assad.

Mr. Indyk characterizes the meeting as a stern warning, "Which was, 'we are watching you, we are aware of these credible reports that Syrian intelligence agents are moving back into Lebanon, the assumption amongst us is that you pulled out your troops, yet the seal of approval that you were fulfilling resolution 1559, and now you are seeking to control Lebanon by other means.' "

The Bush administration has vowed to keep up the pressure for Syria to be transparent about what it is doing in Lebanon. It hopes that will help the Lebanese people build their democratic institutions free of international interference.