WASHINGTON (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.
Officials said the Bush administration was concerned about political deadlock in Lebanon, which Washington blames on Syrian meddling, and the move underlined that worry.
“The presence is important. It isn’t meant to send any stronger signals than that but in fact it does signal that we’re engaged, we’re going to be in the vicinity,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen said the decision was not aimed only at Syria but at the region as whole.
“That’s a very, very important part of the world and stability there as well as in the broader Middle East is an important outcome for us,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
A U.S. defense official said the Cole, a destroyer, left Malta on Tuesday heading toward Lebanon, adding it would not be within visible range of Lebanon but “well over the horizon.”
A couple of U.S. Navy refueling ships were also in the area, the official said.
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.
“The United States believes a show of support is important for regional stability,” said a senior Bush administration official, who spoke on condition he was not identified.
“We are very concerned about the situation in Lebanon. It has dragged on very long.”
The Cole was attacked off the coast of Yemen in October 2000 by al Qaeda militants. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed.
Mullen said a group of ships will operate in the eastern Mediterranean “for a while.”
The Lebanese government had no immediate comment.
But Hezbollah ally and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun said the United States sent the Cole to display its deterrence capability and he was not worried about the action.
Two U.S. defense officials said the Cole could be replaced by the USS Nassau, an amphibious assault ship on a course for the Mediterranean. Such ships can transport U.S. Marines but there are no Marines on the Nassau, one official said.
A third defense official noted the Nassau was accompanied by other vessels as part of an expeditionary strike group and suggested some of them may be more likely to relieve the Cole.
The presidential election in Lebanon was postponed again this week to March 11 from February 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.
Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally which supports the pro-Western coalition, has also voiced concern over events in Lebanon and discussed the issue with President George W. Bush last month during his visit to Saudi Arabia.
Bush 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 as well as those in the Middle East.
Bush administration officials declined to say whether the decision was taken partly because of Saudi pressure.
“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.
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.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman