Iran Terrorism U.S. reports plot to topple Beirut leaders

U.S. reports plot to topple Beirut leaders

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New York Times: The White House said Wednesday that there was “mounting evidence” that Iran and Syria were involved in a plot to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon, but senior officials refused to describe in any detail the intelligence they said they had collected. The New York Times

By DAVID E. SANGER and MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Published: November 2, 2006

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 — The White House said Wednesday that there was “mounting evidence” that Iran and Syria were involved in a plot to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon, but senior officials refused to describe in any detail the intelligence they said they had collected.

In an unusual statement, the White House said it was “increasingly concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon’s democratically elected government.”

American officials said they had evidence that Syria and Iran were trying to engineer the creation of a new “unity” government that they could control, partly through Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite organization considered a terrorist group by the United States.

One senior American official, who declined to be identified by name because he was discussing an intelligence issue, said there were also indications of “planning for a more violent” attack on the government, but he gave no details.

In the written statement, issued by the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, the administration also said there were “indications” that Syria was trying to block passage of a statute by the Lebanese Parliament that would require that Lebanon cooperate with an international tribunal that is to try those accused of involvement in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. Syria has denied involvement, though Syrian intelligence officials, including close family members of President Bashar al-Assad, have been implicated.

In interviews in recent days, senior American officials have said the evidence is one reason that the United States cannot engage in negotiations with Syria or Iran, as several leading Republicans, including the former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, have urged.

“Talking isn’t a strategy,” the president’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said in an interview late last week before heading to Iraq. “The issue is how can we condition the environment so that Iran and Syria will make a 180 degree turn?” a reference to what he said were their efforts to undermine stability in the region.

Asked on Wednesday about the new warning from the White House, Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said that “quite clearly, Hezbollah has its patrons in Damascus, and certainly in Tehran” who observe “very few boundaries concerning what it will do and what it won’t do.”

But administration officials said they had little evidence of an impending physical attack. Instead, they said they believed that Hezbollah might stage a political crisis to bring about the fall of the government. For the Bush administration, that possibility poses a vexing problem: if the Siniora government collapses because of domestic political infighting, any change of government may look more like parliamentary politics than a coup.

At the moment, Hezbollah, which is part of the current government, is seen to be in a stronger political position than the Washington-allied March 14 coalition, which controls the government and the largest bloc in Parliament.

Tension has been rising in Lebanon since the cease-fire that ended a 34-day war with Israel this summer that was directed against Hezbollah, which launched attacks on Israel from Lebanese territory.

Foreign pressures are only one of the many forces driving the political dynamics between competing factions. Lebanon’s political factions are scheduled to begin talks on Monday to discuss Hezbollah’s demand for a new national unity government, a proposal that two recent polls determined has the backing of about 70 percent of the population.

“Both camps are escalating to put their opponents in the corner in order to reach concessions,” said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut who said that Washington’s charges do not warrant “any attention.”

The White House clearly hopes that its public support will buttress the American-backed government, but some experts in Beirut warned that it may well have had the opposite effect. The government’s chief critics, including the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have charged that those who control the government are puppets of Washington.

“Love can be deadly,” said the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, after hearing Washington’s charges on Wednesday. “Is it a defense for Lebanon? Or pushing it toward chaos? Is it a support for the government? Or incitement against it?”

While Iran and Syria have long maneuvered for position in Lebanon, there is also a local fight under way over who controls the reins of power. Hezbollah and its chief ally, the former general Michel Aoun, are pressing to extend their control. The March 14 coalition is struggling to hold them back.

With its announcement, Washington has adopted the political talking points of its closest ally in Beirut, the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, who has repeatedly sought to undermine Hezbollah by charging it is nothing more than a puppet of Iran and Syria. Mr. Jumblatt was visiting Washington this week and met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In an interview, a member of Mr. Jumblatt’s party, the Progressive Socialist Party, said he agreed with Washington’s characterization of how events may unfold.

“We have evidence of the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah plan,” said Akram Chehayeb, a member of Parliament. His proof, he said, included statements by Syrian officials close to Iran who called for toppling the government, and a speech by the Syrian president in which he said “we have to translate our military victory into a political one.”

It was unclear to what extent Washington may have relied on that information in making its assertions.

In a television interview on Tuesday, Mr. Nasrallah said that if his political opponents did not accept a national unity government, he would rally his supporters in the streets.

Mr. Nasrallah’s influence is clear: when the fractious parties sit down to talk on Monday only Hezbollah’s demands will be on the agenda. In addition to the unity government, which would bring Hezbollah’s allies into power, the group wants to amend the election law and call early elections for Parliament.

Opponents of Hezbollah wanted to discuss disarming Hezbollah’s militia, and replacing the pro-Syrian president, Émile Lahoud, whose term was extended by Damascus.

“I don’t buy it,” said Jamil Mroueh, publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon of Washington’s statement. “This is a domestic issue, in terms of the wrestle for power.”

David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Michael Slackman from Beirut, Lebanon. Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.

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