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US Welcomes End of Najaf Standoff, Criticizes Syria's Role in Lebanon - 2004-08-28

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is welcoming Friday's end of the three-week occupation of the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf by Shi'ite militiamen as a great victory for Iraq's interim government. In an interview, he also criticized Syria's role in Lebanon.

U.S.-led troops were responsible for most of the military pressure on the militiamen of renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Iraq security forces surrounding the shrine in central Najaf oversaw the implementation of the peace deal. And the outcome is being welcomed here as a major boost for the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Alawi.

In an interview with U.S. funded Arabic broadcasters Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra Television, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage credited the end of the crisis to both the interim government, and to Shi'ite spiritual leader the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose return from medical treatment in London expedited the settlement talks.

"Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani played a very important role," Mr. Armitage said. "But no one would have been able to have played that role without the military pressure that the Iraqi military put on Najaf. And I'm watching today the Arab broadcasts and seeing pictures of armored personnel carriers with the Iraqi flag, and Iraqi soldiers patrolling the streets of Najaf. And I'm seeing a new pride in the new Iraq. So we're quite happy with this and congratulate the government of Prime Minister Alawi."

Mr. Armitage said the Bush administration is delighted with the outcome in Najaf, but happy most of all for the people of the city, whose nightmare, he said seems to be over.

In the interview, the deputy secretary also reiterated U.S. concern about Syrian pressure on Lebanese political leaders to amend the country's constitution to allow another six-year term in office by President Emile Lahoud, an ally of Damascus.

Lebanese religious leaders and others have strongly opposed the constitutional change, which would be needed if Mr. Lahoud remains in office after November.

Mr. Armitage said Syria, which wields heavy influence in Lebanon through its continued troop presence there, is showing disdain and disrespect for the Lebanese people and political system.

"Syria made it very clear to the people of Lebanon that they don't care about any established constitution, and they don't care that the people of Lebanon are allowed to express their views and vote for whomever they wish," he said. "Our view is very clear on this, that Lebanon and the Lebanese should be able to figure out their own future free of all and any outside interference."

Mr. Armitage said Damascus is playing a dangerous game with its tactics in Lebanon which he said over the long-term will prove to be very harmful to Syrian interests.

He also said it is about time, 15 years after the Taif accords on Lebanon, that Syria lives up to the spirit of those agreements and removes its remaining forces from the country.

Syria sent troops into Lebanon in 1976 under an Arab League mandate to try to end that country's civil war.

The Taif accords, signed in that Saudi Arabian city in 1989, provided for Lebanese political reforms, the disbanding of militias and rebuilding central government forces, and for a timetable for a Syrian withdrawal.

Syria has reduced its forces and redeployed them within Lebanon, but 16,000 troops remain in the country with the nominal consent of the Beirut government.