WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States pulled its ambassador from Syria yesterday, expressing “profound outrage” over the assassination of a Lebanese leader who had protested Syrian influence in his country. Washington stopped short of directly accusing Syria of carrying out the murder.
In Lebanon, there were noisy street processions mourning former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a day ahead of the funeral that will bring international leaders to Beirut. Angry Lebanese attacked Syrian workers in the former leader’s hometown of Sidon, injuring several and shattering the windows of a Syrian-owned bakery.
Many Lebanese are pressing Syria to withdraw its 15,000 soldiers who have been in the country for more than a decade.
“We believe the Lebanese people must be free to express their political preferences and choose their own representatives without intimidation or the threat of violence,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in announcing the imminent return of U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey.
Her return does not break diplomatic relations with Syria, a country the United States has accused of exporting terrorism. Syria took no immediate reciprocal action, such as recalling its own ambassador from Washington.
Hariri died Monday when a huge car bomb blew up his motorcade in downtown Beirut. Sixteen others also died in the bombing. The killing was the most serious and destabilizing violence in Lebanon in more than a decade. It came just as Israel and the Palestinians were taking initial hopeful steps toward a peace agreement, and as the Bush administration was pressing for greater democratic changes elsewhere in the Middle East.
The bombing also made Syria an unwelcome problem for the Bush administration. Not quite one month into his second term, President Bush was already facing new diplomatic headaches with Iran and North Korea.
Syria, which has denied any involvement in Hariri’s assassination, keeps its troops in Lebanon 15 years after the country’s civil war ended, and has the final say in internal Lebanese politics. Damascus says its troops are needed to keep peace for the Lebanese.
The bombing raised fears that Lebanon might revert to the political violence of the 1970s and ‘80s. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut warned Americans in the Lebanese capital to be extremely careful.
After the killing, Scobey “delivered a message to the Syrian government expressing our deep concern, as well as our profound outrage, over this heinous act of terrorism,” Boucher said.
The Bush administration’s actions indicated that it saw a Syrian hand behind the bombing, but neither Boucher nor White House press secretary Scott McClellan would say so outright.
“We have not made any determination of responsibility,” Boucher said. The assassination led to the ambassador’s recall because the killing “shows the distortions of Lebanese politics that are created by the Syrian presence,” and calls into question Syria’s explanation that its troops provide internal security.
The administration had earlier condemned the killing of Hariri, a billionaire construction magnate who masterminded the recovery of his country, and insisted that Syria comply with a U.N. resolution calling for the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon.