(Adds more details, quotes, Hezbollah ally)
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Signaling impatience with Syria, the United States has sent its USS Cole warship off the coast of Lebanon in a show of support amid Beirut’s political crisis, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
A senior Bush administration official told Reuters the United States was very concerned about the political deadlock in Lebanon, which Washington blames on Syrian meddling, and the U.S. military gesture underlined that worry.
"The United States believes a show of support is important for regional stability. We are very concerned about the situation in Lebanon. It has dragged on very long," said the senior official, who spoke on condition he was not identified.
Lebanon’s Western-backed governing coalition and its Syrian and Iranian backed opposition have failed to reach a deal to end the country’s political conflict.
A U.S. defense official said the Cole left Malta on Tuesday and was headed toward Lebanon, adding it would not be within visible range of Lebanon but "well over the horizon."
The USS Cole was attacked off the coast of Yemen in October 2000 by al Qaeda militants. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed.
A couple of U.S. Navy tankers were also in the area, the official said.
"The point would be to encourage stability during a potentially critical period," the defense official said.
The Lebanese government had no immediate comment.
But Hezbollah ally and Christian opposition leader, Michel Aoun, said the United States sent the USS Cole to display its deterrence capability and he was not worried about the action.
BUSH ORDERED MOVE
The presidential election in Lebanon was postponed again this week to March 11 from Feb. 26, the 15th such delay, after rival leaders failed to reach a deal.
The deadlock has threatened to degenerate into sectarian violence and continues to poison inter-Arab relations in the run-up to an Arab League summit in Syria next month.
"The Arab League is engaged but it has not been successful. In those set of circumstances we think a show of support for regional stability and regional solutions is important," said the senior Bush administration official.
The defense official indicated the Cole could be replaced by the USS Nassau, an amphibious assault ship. The Nassau is en route to the Mediterranean, the official said.
"The Cole wouldn’t be designed to stay there for the long term," the official added.
President George W. Bush had ordered the move earlier this week as a sign of concern over Lebanon and consulted U.S. allies such as France and Britain about it.
"The president is concerned about the situation in Lebanon and discusses the issue regularly with his national security team," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Bush administration officials declined to provide the exact whereabouts of the USS Cole.
The United States has increased pressure on Syria in recent weeks, targeting more individuals with sanctions.
The U.S. Treasury froze assets of four Syrians on Thursday, saying they facilitated the flow of money, weapons and terrorists through Syria to al Qaeda in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, editing by Doina Chiacu)