Reuters: U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday accused Iran and Syria of “inspiring” Hizbollah’s attacks on Israel and said Damascus was trying to use the crisis to regain its hold over Lebanon. By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON, July 18 (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday accused Iran and Syria of “inspiring” Hizbollah’s attacks on Israel and said Damascus was trying to use the crisis to regain its hold over Lebanon.
Under pressure for a stepped-up U.S. diplomatic role, Bush was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region. But U.S. officials sought to temper expectations over her trip, which Israel’s U.N. envoy said would begin on Friday.
Bush stuck to his view that U.S. ally Israel was acting in self-defense after Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas captured two soldiers in a cross-border raid and unleashed rocket attacks, but cautioned it against taking actions that might lead to the collapse of Lebanon’s fragile government.
Voicing suspicion that Damascus was trying to reassert influence in Lebanon more than a year after ending its 28-year military presence there, Bush said: “It’s in our interest that Syria stay out of Lebanon and this government survive.”
In his first public comments on the Middle East conflict since returning from a G8 summit in Russia, Bush called Hizbollah’s attacks the “root cause” of the week-old conflict.
“Part of those terrorist attacks are inspired by nation-states like Syria and Iran,” he said. “And in order to be able to deal with this crisis, the world must deal with Hizbollah, with Syria, and to continue to work to isolate Iran.”
The White House earlier pressed Iran and Syria, Hizbollah’s supporters, to exert their influence over the group to halt rocket fire and return the soldiers. Israel has responded with waves of air strikes inside Lebanon.
Bush spoke to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah about the Lebanon crisis on Tuesday and the two agreed to help ease the Lebanese people’s hardship, a White House official said.
Rice said she would travel to the region “when it is appropriate and when it is necessary and will be helpful.”
Though she gave no hint of the timeframe for her visit, Israel’s U.N. ambassador Dan Gillerman told Fox News she was expected to go to the Middle East on Friday after visiting the United Nations to speak with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Hizbollah and its Arab allies say Washington is buying time for Israel to intensify its military operations.
Analysts say Iran may be using Hizbollah to show it can hurt U.S. allies and interests if Washington goes ahead with efforts to get U.N. sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
But Bush singled out Damascus for his toughest criticism.
“Syria is trying to get back into Lebanon, it looks to me,” he said. “There’s suspicions that the instability created by the Hizbollah attacks (on Israel) will cause some in Lebanon to invite Syria back in.”
U.S. officials signaled reluctance to join in international calls for an immediate ceasefire that would leave Hizbollah’s rockets within range of northern Israel.
Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution backing Israel, condemning Hizbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and calling for Iran and Syria to be held accountable in the conflict.
Scores of anti-Israel protesters gathered outside the White House gates on Tuesday waving Lebanese flags.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Saul Hudson in Washington and Evelyn Leopold in New York)