January 16, 2008 / 7:58 AM / in 12 years

Bush says Iran and Syria must end Lebanon interference

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Wednesday that Syria and Iran must end interference in Lebanese politics, and called for nations in the region to support Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

President George W. Bush (L) and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shake hands after speaking to the media following private meetings in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, January 16, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Bush, at the end of a Middle East tour of Israel and Arab countries, also promised to stay engaged in Middle East peacemaking and said he was optimistic an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be reached before he leaves office.

Speaking about Lebanon, Bush said: “It’s important to encourage the holding of immediate and unconditional presidential elections according to the Lebanese constitution.”

“And to make it clear to Syria, Iran and their allies they must end their interference and efforts to undermine the process,” Bush added.

A political conflict pitting Siniora’s Western-backed governing coalition against opposition led by Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has paralyzed government.

Bush also sought support from Arab allies to contain Iran’s growing regional influence, and told them Tehran remained a threat despite a National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

U.S. tensions with Iran resurfaced recently after an incident in the Strait of Hormuz in which the United States said Iranian ships harassed U.S. ships.

Bush says the Unites States continues to pursue diplomatic means to resolve issues with Iran, but that all options are on the table.

Analysts say that while Washington’s Arab allies are wary of Iran’s growing influence in the region, they do not want to see a U.S. military confrontation with Tehran.

“Iran is a neighboring country and important in the region. Naturally, we have nothing bad towards Iran,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday.

“We hope that Iran also responds to the international legitimacy requirements,” he said.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN EFFORTS

Bush tried to rally Arab support for peacemaking efforts, including reaching out to Israel, during his visit to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

He started the trip last week by making his first presidential visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank and said he expected the two sides to sign a peace treaty before his term ends in January 2009.

“And I know nations in the neighborhood are willing to help, particularly yourself, and I appreciate your strong constructive support for the process,” Bush told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at this Red Sea resort.

“When I say I’m coming back to stay engaged, I mean it. When I say I’m optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I’m saying,” Bush said.

Mubarak said Egypt, a traditional mediator, was ready to work hand in hand with the United States and others for the sake of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

After seven years in office, Bush’s recent hands-on approach in peacemaking efforts has raised some questions about his commitment. He has accepted an invitation to return for Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which fall in May.

Bush also discussed with Mubarak and other Arab leaders the situation in Iraq. The U.S.-led war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular in the Arab world.

“The decision to send more troops is working. Violence is down,” Bush said.

He said Rice, in Baghdad on Tuesday, saw “life returning back to the streets. The moms are out with their children, normal life is coming back. And political life is moving.”

Bush arrived in Egypt from Saudi Arabia where he discussed high oil prices with King Abdullah, the leader of the world’s biggest exporter, during an overnight stay at his desert ranch.

Slideshow (20 Images)

“The president said that there is a hope as a result of these conversations that OPEC would be encouraged to authorize an increase in production,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters traveling with Bush.

“He says that the King says that he understands the situation. He’s worried about high oil prices and how they can negatively affect economies around the world,” Perino said.

Editing by Keith Weir

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