Rice makes surprise visit to Lebanon

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told leaders of this Gulf state that the U.S. government had no doubts about the takeover of six U.S. ports by an Emirates-owned company, a State Department spokesman said. Rice discussed the purchase of the commercial operations in the six ports when she met the prime minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and the crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed, shortly after arriving in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday evening, the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. congressional opposition to the takeover has led the buyer, state-owned Dubai Ports World, to offer to delay exercising control over the ports to give President George W. Bush more time to convince lawmakers that the move poses no security risks. The lawmakers have accused the UAE of being soft on terrorism, citing the fact that funds for the Sept. 11 hijackers passed through its territory.

The spokesman said little about Rice's talks with the UAE leaders except that she praised the country as a strong U.S. ally and said the Bush administration was confident of its approval of the purchase. Later Rice met foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states in Abu Dhabi .

On Friday morning, Rice met 20 women students from two universities in the Emirates and left for the United States , finishing a tour of the Middle East that also took her to Egypt , Saudi Arabia and Lebanon . Rice diverted from her schedule Thursday to fly to Beirut where she praised the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, whose policy is to cautiously distance Lebanon from Syria , which stationed thousands of troops in the country until forced to withdraw last April.

Rice told reporters she came to Lebanon "to affirm the firm support of the United States of America for the Lebanese people as they work to have a fully sovereign, democratic Lebanon " that encompasses all religious groups. Rice hinted that the United States would welcome the departure of Lebanon 's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, who is facing a campaign to unseat him by the anti-Syrian majority in parliament.

While saying it was for the Lebanese to choose their president, Rice noted that the country needed "a presidency that looks forward, not back, and that defends Lebanese sovereignty." Lahoud is Damascus ' top ally in Beirut , a vestige of the days when Syria used political supporters and troops to control its western neighbor. Rice snubbed Lahoud, meeting instead with the reform-minded prime minister and leaders of the anti-Syrian alliance in parliament.

Later Thursday, the anti-Syrian ministers in the government announced they would boycott Cabinet sessions presided over by Lahoud, stepping up their pressure to oust him. A Cabinet meeting that had been set for Thursday did not take place because there was no quorum.

Speaking after talks with Saniora, Rice said Syria must give "full cooperation" to the U.N. investigation into last year's killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The probe is led by a Belgian prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, who on Thursday made his first visit to Syria since taking office. "Full cooperation means that the Syrians should cooperate in whatever way the investigator, Mr. Brammertz, deems necessary," she said.

The U.N. Security Council has twice accused Syria of failing to cooperate fully with the inquiry, which has implicated Syrian intelligence officials. Syria has rejected the investigation's findings and contends it is cooperating fully.

The killing of Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005 , provoked mass demonstrations against Syria , as he was seen as a quiet opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon . Combined with international pressure, the protests led to Syria 's withdrawing its troops from Lebanon , ending a 29 year military presence in the country, reports the AP.

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