Syria tightens grip on Lebanon as U.S. warns both nations

Monday, April 21, 2003

NICOSIA Syria, under increasing threat from the United States, is exerting greater control over neighboring Lebanon.

Meanwhile the United States has warned Lebanon that it is stepping up air and sea reconnaissance to prevent Iraqi leaders seeking safe haven.

Syria has reduced its military force to fewer than 20,000 troops in Lebanon. But the Assad regime has brought thousands of Syrian agents to monitor every facet of official Lebanese life, including government, media, universities and professional syndicates.

Lebanese analysts said the new government of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is the most pro-Syrian Cabinet ever, Middle East Newsline reported. They said Hariri was ordered by Damascus to disband his previous council of ministers and appoint Christians who are completely subservient to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The new Hariri Cabinet comes amid increased pressure on both Lebanon and Syria by the United States. U.S. officials said they suspect that both countries have been harboring at least seven leading aides of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"The new government is completely out of sync with what is going on in the region," the Beirut-based L'Orient-Le Jour daily said.

The sources said Syria had been pressured by Lebanese President Emile Lahoud to dismiss Hariri and replace him with former Prime Minister Omar Karameh, a pro-Syrian politician from Tripoli. But Assad refused, citing Hariri's support in Saudi Arabia.

The London-based Al Hayat daily reported on Saturday that Washington has informed the Hariri government that the United States will increase air and sea reconnaissance of Lebanon's borders to ensure that Iraqi regime members will not find safe haven in Lebanon. The newspaper said the U.S. message was delivered by U.S. ambassador to Beirut Vincent Battle. The ambassador relayed a U.S. assessment that an Iraqi intelligence agent who had attempted to kill former President George Bush, the father of the current president, escaped to Lebanon and then flew to North Africa.

U.S. officials said Syria has responded to pressure from Washington by increasing restrictions on Iraqis seeking to enter the Arab country. They said Damascus now requires a visa of all of Iraqis who seek to enter Syria.

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