Lebanon's prime minister says one year after the withdrawal of Syrian troops, Lebanon still faces many challenges as it works to restore its democracy and repair its economy.
Relations between Lebanon and Syria have been strained since the last Syrian soldiers departed Lebanon this time last year. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told an audience in Washington Thursday that repairing relations will be a major challenge, but that it must be done. "The scars left by the dramatic developments of the past 18 months, and the heavy-handed interference in Lebanese domestic affairs by the Syrian security establishment for many years, are not easy to heal," he said.
The development the prime minister was alluding to was the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, for which many Lebanese blame Syria. Damascus has denied any role in the Hariri assassination or the series of bomb attacks that followed, which killed at least three other outspoken critics of Syria.
Next week in Beirut, politicians representing parliament's 14 blocs are to resume National Dialogue talks, in an attempt to resolve several issues that have paralyzed the government and have kept it from dealing with Lebanon's most pressing problem -- its beleaguered economy.
One of the most contentious issues is a demand from anti-Syrian politicians that Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, resign. The president refuses to step down, and his opponents do not have the constitutionally required two-thirds majority to force him out. Mr. Siniora says he hopes the issue will be resolved during the talks.
"Today, Lebanon needs and deserves a forward looking president; a president who is freely and constitutionally elected; one who can help guide this historic transition while preserving national unity; a president who respects the constitution and works in conformity with it," he said.
Also on the agenda will be the future of the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, and the United Nations has called for its disarmament, but many Lebanese support Hezbollah, saying it is largely responsible for Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon six years ago. "Reconciling these considerations with the natural obligation of the state to be the sole provider of security to all its citizens and residents, and the right of the state to have a monopoly over arms, is a major challenge to be addressed in the period ahead," he said.
Since Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, a small area of disputed territory which sits at the meeting point of the Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli borders, known as Shebaa Farms, has become the main zone of conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. Israel controls the area, and Hezbollah and Lebanon want them out. Mr. Siniora said he discussed Shebaa Farms with President Bush Wednesday at the White House, and he is expected to take it up again Friday when he meets with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York.
"We talked about Shebaa Farms and our thinking into this and how this really can help in reaching the point with the development of a strategy for how to defend Lebanon. I think this will take us to the point where we will have full monopoly of the state over the full territory of Lebanon," he said.
Prime Minister Siniora says his meetings with President Bush were very positive and that the United States is very committed to Lebanon's freedom and sovereignty.