Rice on a surprise visit to Beirut

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice being an a Middle East trip made a surprise visit to the capital of Lebanon Beirut Friday, showing support for its new anti-Syrian government and willing to “congratulate” Lebanese on “their incredible desire for democracy.”

According to the AP, Rice arrived on a private plane and headed straight into talks with lawmaker Saad Hariri, parliament's majority coalition leader and the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose Feb. 14 assassination sparked anti-Damascus protests that led to Syria's pullout.

She was later to visit the grave of Rafik Hariri, reports Reuters.

She is also expected to meet pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, new Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, said presidential spokesman Rafik Shalala.

"This will be an opportunity first of all to congratulate the Lebanon people on their incredible desire for democracy," Rice said en route to Beirut.

The visit by Rice, who was in Jerusalem on Friday, comes a few days after Lebanon formed a 24-member Cabinet dominated by anti-Syrians, which included for the first time a member of the militant Hezbollah group, which Washington brands a terrorist organization.

"They keep pressing forward and they have now formed a government," Rice was quoted as saying by the AP. "I look forward to meeting and see how the international community and the United States in particular can be supportive."

Rice's visit was not previously announced apparently for security reasons, as in all visits by U.S. officials to a country that has seen numerous anti-American attacks in the 1980s that targeted diplomats and soldiers during the 1975-90 civil war, reminds the AP.

Security also has been shaky recently, with a spate of assassinations targeting Lebanese personalities since Syria's withdrawal.

Before her arrival in Beirut, Rice has just wrapped up a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the southern Israeli town of Negev to press Israel and the Palestinians to coordinate the coming Israeli Gaza pullout. No press conference was held after the talks with Mr Sharon, but an Israeli official described the meeting as excellent.

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