BEIRUT, Lebanon Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put a U.S. stamp of approval Monday on an emerging new government in Lebanon despite the increased power it gives to Hezbollah militants.
Rice made an unannounced visit to Lebanon's capital to meet with Western-backed leaders of the planned government, whose exact makeup is still being negotiated by the country's factions. The U.S. regards Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist group and has no dealings with it.
"Congratulations," Rice said as she shook hands with Michel Suleiman, the army chief elected last month to lead the government. "We are all just very supportive of your presidency and your government."
On the flight from Israel, Rice told reporters she would discuss "how the United States can support the institutions of a free Lebanon."
Hezbollah, which is both a militia and a political power, gained veto power over the Beirut government in a compromise brokered last month. The deal ended 18 months of political paralysis, and followed bloody street clashes.
The U.S. would have preferred that Hezbollah not gain greater power, but has called the deal a necessary step for stability.
Later, at a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Rice also brought up the disputed Chebaa Farms, where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. The territory was captured by Israel during the 1967 Mideast war. Lebanon claims the area and Hezbollah continues to fight over the disputed land, arguing that Israel's occupation justifies its resistance.
"I also told him that the United States believes the time has come to deal with the Chebaa Farms issue," Rice said. She did not take questions from reporters as to what pressure the U.S. might apply to Israel to resolve the dispute.
Saad Hariri, son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, said he hoped that with U.S. help, Lebanon would "be able to close that chapter in the history of Lebanon. Chebaa is a very important part of Lebanon that the Lebanese people want back."
The political breakthrough that allowed Lebanon's parliament to elect Suleiman was reached with the help of Arab negotiators. It brought palpable relief to Lebanese who feared their country was in danger of another civil war and ushered in a shift in the balance of power in favor of Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Rice is the first high-level U.S. official to visit since the power sharing agreement was reached, and she was meeting Suleiman for the first time.
A Hezbollah lawmaker voiced fears that Rice's trip might obstruct the formation of a national unity government.
"Mrs. Rice's visits have always been a disaster and a catastrophe for Lebanon because the U.S. government never works for the sake of the Lebanese people, but for the sake of their interests in the region as well as Israel's interests," Hezbollah legislator Nawar al-Saheli told The Associated Press Monday.
"We fear that Rice's visit this time is aimed at obstructing the formation of the new government, especially if a national union Cabinet was not in the interest of the U.S. administration," he said.
Following her meeting with Suleiman, Rice said, "It was really delightful to meet the president. I know it has been a struggle for Lebanon to get to the election of its president. But I come away knowing that Lebanon has succeeded in electing a very fine man. We look forward to working with him."
Still, Hezbollah's ascendancy is a setback for the U.S., which had strongly backed the Lebanese government for three years and is concerned that Iran's influence is spreading in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the U.S. welcomed the developments in Lebanon and its diplomats and visiting congressmen attended Suleiman's election.
Asked by reporters why the power-sharing agreement was not a defeat for the United States, Rice said that while it's true that Hezbollah has gained political clout, it is also true that democratic figures endured.
"Obviously in any compromise there are compromises," she said.
"But this was an agreement that I think served the interests of the Lebanese people. And since it served the interests of the Lebanese people, it serves the interests of the United States. We support the democratically elected government of Lebanon," she said.
The U.S. government has labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization and blames it for the deaths of 241 U.S. Marines in the bombing of their Beirut barracks in 1983, as well as for two attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the 1985 TWA hijacking that killed an American serviceman on board. Hezbollah repeatedly has denied such accusations and says it now opposes terrorism.
Hezbollah and its allies fought a monthlong war with Israel in the summer of 2006 that ended in a stalemate.
Political bickering prevented parliament from electing a president 19 times, leaving the country without a president since Emile Lahoud left office in November.Suleiman's election is the first tangible step in the deal to end the political crisis which erupted in May into the worst violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Gunmen overran large parts of Muslim west Beirut after the government tried to rein Hezbollah in. The show of force left 67 people dead and gave Hezbollah new political leverage.
Associated Press Writer Hussein Dakroub contributed to this report.