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US Secretary of State Rejects Immunity for Syria in Hariri Probe

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday rejected the notion of excusing Syrian leaders from scrutiny in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Senate testimony, Rice also ruled out unconditional U.S. talks with Iran over its nuclear program. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice says the U.N. tribunal on the Hariri assassination is not necessarily trying to implicate the Syrian leadership.

But she says to excuse Syria from possible blame, before the tribunal ends its work, would be a setback for international justice.

Rice was responding at a U.S. Senate hearing to a suggestion by Republican Senator Arlen Specter that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might be more willing to reign-in Middle East radicals such as Hamas and Hezbollah, if he knew he would not be a target for prosecution in the Hariri case.

Specter said he is not advocating such a step himself, but that the probe was cited by Jordan's King Abdullah during a recent visit to Washington as a major concern of the Syrian leader.

Rice said limiting the scope of the tribunal, because it might implicate the Syrian government or the al-Assad family, would be inappropriate and a "very bad step" for Lebanon and international justice.

"We don't know what the tribunal will produce. Our effort has been not to focus the tribunal toward Syria or about Syria, about the al-Assad family, but rather to try and insure the smooth and integral working of the tribunal. And I think that is the appropriate place for us to be," said Rice. "After all, the tribunal was created under a U.N. Security Council resolution, and it needs to take place with integrity."

The U.N. tribunal has not filed any formal charges in the Hariri case, although four pro-Syrian Lebanese military officers have been under arrest for nearly two years for alleged involvement in the truck-bomb assassination, which killed the former Lebanese leader and 22 others.

On Tuesday, the former Canadian federal prosecutor now heading the Hariri probe, Daniel Bellemare, asked the U.N. Security Council to extend his investigative authority beyond its June 15 expiration. Bellemare said the probe is making progress but that no indictments will be issued soon.

On another issue at the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Senator Specter told Rice the Bush administration should drop its demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment as a condition for political talks with the United States and other powers.

"Frankly, I think it's insulting to go to another person, or another country, and say 'we're not going to talk to you unless you agree to something in advance.' What we want them to do is to stop enriching uranium," said Specter. "That's the object of the talks. How can we insist on their agreeing to the object that we want as a precondition for having the talks?"

Rice said halting enrichment is not just a U.S. condition but also a demand of other major powers trying to deal with Tehran on the nuclear issue.

She said Iran cannot be allowed to use negotiations as "cover" while it continues perfecting techniques that might be used for nuclear weapons.

Rice said suspicions about Iran's nuclear intentions have been raised by its refusal to stop enrichment - even as Russia offers Tehran a guaranteed supply of uranium fuel for its power station at Bushehr. Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.