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Rice Assures Son of Slain Lebanese Leader of Continued US Support


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday assured Lebanese legislator Saad Hariri, son of Lebanon's slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, of continued U.S. support for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence. Hariri said he would like to see the U.N. investigation of his father's murder last year move faster.

Saad Hariri is only a factional leader in the Lebanese parliament, but he is getting top-level diplomatic treatment from the Bush administration, which is stressing its support for Lebanese independence in the face of what are seen as continued Syrian pressure tactics.

In a photo session at the start of her meeting with Hariri, Secretary of State Rice stressed support for Lebanese sovereignty and said the United States will continue to work to make sure there is no intimidation of the Lebanese people, and that Syria respects its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolution 1559.

Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon nearly a year ago under terms of the September 2004 resolution, though U.S. officials say Damascus still has an intelligence presence there and backs the Shi'ite Hezbollah militia and other Palestinian factions that are supposed to disarm.

The younger Hariri's father, a leading opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, was killed along with some 20 other people in a massive car bombing last February in Beirut that many Lebanese blame on Syria.

A United Nations investigation of the killing underway since last year has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security personnel, though the pace of the inquiry has slowed in recent weeks as the former lead investigator, Germany's Detlev Mehlis, has given way to a replacement, Belgian jurist Serge Brammertz.

In a talk with reporters after his half-hour meeting with the Secretary, Hariri said he realizes that the new inquiry chief will need time to understand the case, but that it is important for the investigation to move ahead rapidly.

"We believe that the faster the commission works, the better it is for the region," he said. "The faster that Syria cooperates with the commission, it's better for the region. At the end of the day, knowing the truth is a protection for the whole region, because the killers of Rafik Hariri must be punished. And if not punished, they will start killing others, and this is something we don't want at all to happen in Lebanon."

Syria has denied complicity in the killing and has said it is cooperating with the probe, though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month said he would refuse to be interviewed in the case, saying he was upholding Syrian sovereignty.

Several weeks ago, former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who has split with the Damascus government, said in Paris President al-Assad had threatened Rafik Hariri in explicit terms several times before his assassination.

Hariri, who met earlier Thursday with White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, said he is satisfied with U.S. support, but said he was also seeking new American assistance in securing Lebanon's borders and improving its internal security.

He is due to see both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday.

Hariri is the head of the majority bloc in the Lebanese parliament. But he has spent most of the time in recent months outside of the country, concerned about his safety in light of attacks that have killed or wounded several prominent Lebanese opponents of Syria.