The United States on Thursday accused the militant group Hezbollah and its allies Iran and Syria of attempting to endanger Lebanon's stability and undermine its independence, and a U.N. envoy warned that the Mideast is at "an extremely critical juncture."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice singled out Syria for displaying "flagrant disregard" for Lebanon's sovereignty and political independence, citing its provision of increasingly sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and other militias in violation of a U.N. resolution and issuance of 33 arrest warrants for senior Lebanese officials and foreigners.
"Hezbollah remains the most significant and most heavily armed Lebanese militia," she said. "It could not have done so if not for Syria's aid, and facilitation of Syrian and Iranian arms."
The strong U.S. stance on Syria appears to be a shift in strategy. The United States began reaching out to Syria soon after President Barack Obama took office, to try to lure Damascus away from its alliance with Iran and militant groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.
The administration has made repeated overtures to Damascus this year, including nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with President Bashar Assad. But Syria has continued to strengthen ties with outspoken critics of Washington, such as Iran and Venezuela, and the U.S. overtures have not yielded any tangible results yet.
Rice delivered the statement on behalf of the Obama administration to reporters outside the U.N. Security Council, where members were holding a closed-door meeting Thursday on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's latest report on Lebanon.
She said the United States welcomes Ban's report, which stressed the continuing threat to Lebanon's sovereignty and security posed by Hezbollah and other armed militias.
"We continue to have deep concerns about Hezbollah's destructive and destabilizing influence in the region as well as attempts by other foreign players, including Syria and Iran, to undermine Lebanon's independence and endanger its stability," Rice said.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said Rice "gave credibility to wrong facts, wrong information," pointing out that the secretary-general's report says senior Lebanese officials confirmed to the U.N. Secretariat that no weapons smuggling took place across the Syria-Lebanon border.
U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said the United Nations has "no independent means" to look into weapons smuggling.
He told reporters that naming Hezbollah, Syria or Iran would not help the situation in Lebanon, which needs to be de-escalated, not inflamed, but he added: "These weapons, of course, are not coming from the moon."
Looking more broadly at the Mideast, Roed-Larsen warned that if Lebanon is destabilized, "it will have rippling effects across the region" and internationally.
He said he told the Security Council that "this is the most critical issue of international peace and security today."
"The Middle East is at an extremely critical juncture," Roed-Larsen said.
Roed-Larsen, who deals with implementation of a 2004 Security Council resolution calling for Hezbollah and all other militias operating in Lebanon to be disarmed and demobilized, said that's why all parties in Lebanon, the region and beyond must stop "irresponsible and reckless rhetoric" and why all militias must be eliminated.
Hezbollah, which boasts Lebanon's strongest armed force and is a partner in a unity government with parties supporting Prime Minister Saad Hariri, commands widespread support among Shiites and virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shiite areas of the country.
Iran, whose ties to Hezbollah date back nearly 30 years, funds the militant group to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed to supply much of its arsenal.
Many Lebanese fear that if the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri _ the current prime minister's father _ accuses members of Hezbollah in his killing, the government could collapse and clashes could erupt between Shiite fighters and Hariri's mainly Sunni allies.
Hezbollah and Syria have mounted a campaign to try to undermine the tribunal by raising questions about its neutrality. Earlier this month, Syria's judiciary issued arrest warrants against 33 Lebanese officials and foreigners for allegedly misleading the investigation, among them figures close to Saad Hariri and the first U.N. chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis.
Rice said Hezbollah is not accountable to Lebanon's democratic institutions.
"The United States urges all friends and neighbors of Lebanon to play a constructive role in supporting the Lebanese government in good faith," she said. "We remain firmly committed to a sovereign, stable and independent Lebanon with strong Lebanese institutions. This is the only way to secure the best interests of the Lebanese people and the region as a whole."
Associated Press Writer Elizabeth Kennedy contributed to this report from Beirut.