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Bush Tells Syria to 'Stay Out' of Lebanese Political Process


President Bush told his news conference Thursday that Syria should stay out of Lebanon and allow that country to democratically elect a new president. Lebanon has been without a president since late November amid charges Syria is trying to prolong the country's political stalemate. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The year-end news conference included the President's strongest rhetoric to date about Syria, with Mr. Bush saying his patience with Syrian President Bashar Assad expired long ago and that Damascus should "get out" of Lebanese affairs and allow a presidential vote to go forward.

Mr. Bush was asked at the wide-ranging news conference whether he coordinated with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on a call the French leader made to Mr. Assad earlier this week, urging him to let a Lebanese presidential vote go forward and suggesting that French patience on the matter is wearing thin.

"No, it wasn't coordinated with me, and my patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago," he said. "And the reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon. And so, if he's listening, he doesn't need a phone call. He knows exactly what my position is."

Lebanon's anti-Syrian governing bloc, known as the March 14th Coalition, and its opponents have agreed on army chief General Michel Suleiman to replace former president Emile Lahoud, whose term ended November 23.

But his election in parliament was been repeatedly postponed, with the opposition led by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah movement demanding guarantees of veto power in a new cabinet.

Lebanese political analysts have expressed concern that a protracted stalemate could produce a political breakdown in the country, which was wracked by civil war between 1975 and 1990.

Mr. Bush, noting U.S.-French collaboration on the 2004 U.N Security Council resolution that ended Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, said Syria needs to stay out of the country and let its political process go forward.

"I appreciate the sides trying to work on a common ground for a president. But if they can't come to an agreement, then the world ought to say this: that the March 14th Coalition can run their candidate in their parliament. And majority-plus-one ought to determine who the president is, and when that happens, the world ought to embrace the president," he added.

A senior U.S. diplomatic envoy is in Beirut for the second time in less than two weeks to try to encourage Lebanese political leaders to break the stalemate.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch has held talks with, among others, parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri and the parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a key supporter of the Syrian-backed opposition.

The presidential impasse is being described as Lebanon's worst political crisis since the civil war ended 17 years ago.