The United States is pressing, along with France and other U.N. Security Council members, for a resolution upholding Lebanon's sovereignty in the face of Syrian pressure to keep a political ally, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, in office. A senior U.S. envoy is also expected to visit Damascus soon to discuss the issue.
State Department officials say the Bush administration is hoping for Security Council action in the next few days, making clear the international community's concerns over what is seen here as renewed Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics.
In an unusual meeting Saturday lasting only ten minutes, the Lebanese cabinet approved a constitutional amendment that would allow President Lahoud, an ally of Damascus, another three years in office.
The action, which still requires approval of the parliament, has created an uproar in Lebanese politics, and drawn international criticism from the United States and European governments concerned over Syria's heavy influence in its neighbor's affairs.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. diplomats at the United Nations are circulating language for a Security Council resolution drawing on past U.N. affirmations of Lebanese sovereignty, while specifically criticizing Syria for its latest actions. "We feel that Syrian pressure to modify the Lebanese constitution to permit President Lahoud to remain in office an additional three years is an affront to Lebanon's sovereignty and political independence," said Mr. Boucher. "The upcoming presidential election is a decision for the Lebanese people alone to organize and carry out, consistent with their established constitution."
The Lebanese constitution currently limits the president to a single six-year term. The amendment allowing Mr. Lahoud to seek another three years in office would require a two-thirds vote in parliament.
Opponents of the extension would nominally have enough votes to block it. But reports from Beirut say that appears unlikely now, after Prime Minister Rafik Hariri reversed position and supported the amendment at Saturday's cabinet session.
Mr. Hariri's change of heart reportedly followed a meeting Friday with the Syrian military intelligence chief, General Rustom Ghazaleh.
Syria's influence in Lebanon is backed up by the presence of some 16,000 Syrian troops still in the country despite the 1989 Taif agreements ending the Lebanese civil war, which obligated Syria to remove peacekeeping forces deployed in 1975.
The State Department said Monday it is "about time," 15 years after the Taif accords, that Syria lived up to that commitment.
Spokesman Boucher said he expects Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns to raise U.S. concerns directly with Syrian officials when he visits Damascus among other Middle East capitals in a trip to the region in early September.