Bush: Hezbollah could enter Lebanon's political mainstream
Official denies president's remarks are shift in U.S. policy
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Tuesday expressed the hope that Hezbollah -- which the U.S. State Department has long regarded as a terrorist group -- could enter the political mainstream in Lebanon.
"We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization," Bush said at a news conference with Jordan's King Abdullah II after the two met in the Oval Office.
"I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not, by laying down arms and not threatening peace."
Bush's remarks echoed sentiments expressed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley over the weekend. (Full story)
A senior administration official described the president's comments as a "softening of the language, not a shift in policy" regarding the militant Shiite Muslim group. The official said Hezbollah would have to "disarm, renounce terror and abandon any support for terrorism" if it wants to "play a constructive role in Lebanon."
Only then, the official said, would the United States be willing to deal with Hezbollah as a legitimate political organization.
The call for Hezbollah to abandon its ways and become part of Lebanon's political mainstream is an acknowledgment by the administration that the group has strong support in Lebanon and will continue to have a role in the country, the official said.
The administration's strategy is to signal to the Lebanese people it recognizes this reality but make it clear that Hezbollah must change fundamentally, the official said.
Hezbollah organized a huge, pro-Syria rally last week in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. (Full story)
The move followed weeks of demonstrations against Syrian troops in Lebanon after last month's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Bush has called for Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon before the country's May elections, and a U.N. resolution also seeks those forces' immediate withdrawal.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has demanded that the United States quit "meddling with our country."
A Lebanese army source said Tuesday that Syrian intelligence units were in the process of leaving Beirut. (Full story)
"First things first," the senior Bush administration official said. "Syria must get out, and Lebanon must have unfettered elections, then Hezbollah must disarm. ... There is no place for an armed militia in a democratic society."
On Tuesday, Bush said he is concerned that Hezbollah could try to derail the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
"It's very important that this peace process go forward, for the sake of the Palestinians, for the sake of the Israelis and for the sake of all the people in the region."
Bush said he believes progress is being made on the Mideast front.
"I believe peace is within hand," he said.
He said the United States recently sent a general to the region "to help the Palestinians have an effective security force" and expressed confidence that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas "is desirous of developing a state that would live side by side with Israel in peace."
"We recognize that Palestinians need help in consolidating security forces and training security forces that would defeat the terrorists that would like to stop the march of freedom."
Abdullah called Abbas "a man of his word" and someone upon whom Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can depend.
"I truly believe that, in this man, Prime Minister Sharon has a partner for peace," he said, "and I'm very optimistic that, between the two leaders, that the process will go forward and will go forward positively."