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US: Syria Should Stay Out of Lebanese Presidential Politics - 2004-08-25

The United States said Wednesday that Syria and other outside powers should stay out of Lebanese presidential politics. The comments came amid reports that Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Syria, may seek a second six-year term if parliament amends the constitution to allow him to do so.

The United States is not flatly opposing a second term for Mr. Lahoud, a former Lebanese armed forces chief. But it is making clear that such a decision, which would involve a politically-sensitive amendment to the Lebanese constitution, should be for the Lebanese people and no one else to make.

The comments followed a statement by Mr. Lahoud Tuesday that he wanted more time as president in order to complete his domestic agenda, which he said includes curbing corruption, reforming the economy and strengthening the independence of the judiciary.

Mr. Lahoud is due to leave office in November and the Lebanese constitution currently bars consecutive terms for a president.

Syria, which wields heavy and some say controlling influence on Lebanese politics, is reported to want Mr. Lahoud to stay on, but there is broad opposition to constitutional changes among Lebanese political figures.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States supports a free and fair electoral process in Lebanon based, he said, on the established Lebanese constitution, which provides for a new president every six years elected by parliament.

He said the United States as a matter of policy takes no position on individual candidacies, and that no outside country should interfere with this process.

"The decision of who is president of Lebanon is a decision for the Lebanese people, not for the Syrians, and not for the Americans, and not for anybody else," he said. "Lebanon is an independent, sovereign country, and therefore the people of Lebanon should deicide who their president is, consistent with the provisions of their constitution, which calls for the selection of a new president, every six years."

Syria has backed Lebanese constitutional changes at least twice before, in 1995 to extend former President Elias Hraoui's term in office, and in 1998 to allow Mr. Lahoud to run while still head of the armed forces.

Lebanon's Maronite Catholic patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir was quoted this week as saying that the country's constitution is not just an ordinary law that can be altered as politicians see fit, and that previous changes have led to serious crises.

U.S. officials have been critical of Mr. Lahoud's government for among other things accepting the continued presence of thousands of Syrian troops in Lebanon, and refusing to disarm the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon, which the United States considers a terrorist group.