Rice tells Syria not to meddle in Lebanon

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Saturday she delivered a firm message to Syria’s foreign minister not to interfere in Lebanon’s election process, telling him the world was watching.

Rice held a rare meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on the sidelines of an Iraq conference and later drew up a statement along with France and others that urged Damascus not to meddle in Lebanon’s political process.

“I spoke to him quite firmly about Lebanon. I made very clear that everybody was watching, that it was expected that Syria was going to adhere to its international obligations not to interfere, to allow Lebanon to continue to have a constitutional process for the selection of a president,” Rice told reporters traveling with her.

“It was also the expectation of everyone that there would be no intimidation and interference,” she added, speaking en route to Jerusalem after a two-day trip to Turkey.

The United States and France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, have led international criticism of what they call Syria’s constant meddling in its neighbor’s affairs. Syria denies the accusations.

Rice also discussed the Lebanon crisis at a meeting with the foreign ministers of France, Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries on the sidelines of the Iraq meeting.

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had emphasized to Moualem in bilateral talks in Istanbul the importance of non-interference in Lebanon by outsiders.

“I warned Syria of the imperative need to allow the presidential election process to go ahead according to the constitution ... without any external interference,” Kouchner told reporters.

“A political vacuum in Lebanon serves the interests of neither Syria nor of the region.”

Kouchner said Moualem had signaled Damascus would be ready to open full diplomatic relations with Lebanon on certain conditions. “I am doubtful... There’s a little drop of optimism in an ocean of pessimism,” Kouchner said.

Lebanon’s presidential election has been postponed until November 12 to allow more time for rival pro- and anti-Syrian groups to agree on a compromise candidate to be elected by parliament to replace pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud whose term expires on November 23.

Agreement on a new president is regarded as vital to resolving Lebanon’s most serious political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. It pits the Western-backed, anti-Syrian government against the opposition, led by pro-Syrian Hezbollah.