Lebanese Druze Leader Calls on U.S. to Impose Sanctions on Syria

Syrian Web site reports that Walid Jumblatt, Defense Minister are expected to meet soon in U.S.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called on the United States on Sunday to impose sanctions against Syria, warning that Lebanon would not enjoy stability and independence as long as Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime was in power.

Jumblatt also accused Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group allied with Syria and Iran, of involvement in political assassinations in Lebanon along with its Syrian allies.

Jumblatt's statements come on the heels of a report by the Syrian-based web site "Sham Press," which stated that the Druze leader will seek Defense Minister Ehud Barak's help in toppling the Syrian government.

According to the report, Jumblatt will ask Barak to use his influence in Washington to work toward bringing down the Damascus regime during a meeting expected to take place in the United States.

The report also said that Barak and Jumblatt, who are currently visiting the U.S., will hold talks with the aid of an American of Lebanese origin, and with support from Vice President Dick Cheney.

In the past, Jumblatt was harshly criticized in Lebanon for his meetings with senior Israeli officials while traveling abroad. Lebanese law forbids meetings with Israelis.

Barak left last week for an official visit to the U.S. On Friday, he left Washington D.C. for New York, where he met with UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon. This marks Barak's first U.S. trip since taking office four months ago.

Barak met with senior congressional officials and discussed security issues in the Middle East, primarily the Iranian nuclear threat and the current tensions between Israel and Syria.

He also discussed security relations between Israel and the United States and the peace process with the Palestinians.

On Thursday Barak met with President George W. Bush for an hour-long meeting. The meeting, which was not originally scheduled for Barak's U.S. visit, took place in the office of Stephen Hadley, the U.S. National Security Advisor, with whom Barak had planned to hold talks.

Jumblatt: Hezbollah complicit in Lebanon assassinationsJumblatt also accused Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group allied with Syria and Iran, of involvement in political assassinations in Lebanon along with its Syrian allies.

Jumblatt visited New York and Washington in recent days and has been urging the U.S. to help Lebanon elect a president before Emile Lahoud's term ends Nov. 24.

Jumblatt's accusations against Syria for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and a string of political killings since then are not new, but leveling the blame against Hezbollah ups the ante between the anti-Syrian leader and the guerrilla group.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN's Late Edition, the political leader of Lebanon's minority Druze, an offshoot Islamic sect, accused Syria of trying to whittle down the anti-Syrian majority in Parliament through assassination to prevent the election of a president who does not answer to Syria.

The majority currently has 68 members in the 128-member legislature after last month's assassination of an anti-Syrian lawmaker. Another anti-Syrian lawmaker was killed by a car bomb in June.

Asked in the interview who was behind the assassinations, the outspoken Jumblatt replied, "I think Syria and its ally, Hezbollah."

Syria has denied any involvement in the assassinations and Hezbollah has condemned such murders. Although allies of Jumblatt have accused the Syrians of being behind the assassinations, they have refrained from directing blame against Hezbollah, which has repeatedly said it is focused on battling Israel.

Jumblatt ridiculed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's recent accusations that Israel was behind the assassinations, calling it "the biggest joke that I have ever heard."

The Druze leader said Syria should be pressured to stop the assassinations, adding that "as long as Bashar Assad in Syria feels secure, as long as there are no sanctions, effective sanctions against him, military sanctions or economic sanctions, well, he will just go along in Lebanon killing us one by one."

He said that Syria is using the killings to scuttle Parliament's presidential election. A Sept. 25 session to elect a leader failed to achieve momentum after the Hezbollah-led opposition boycotted, preventing a quorum.

Failure to elect a president could throw the country's deep political crisis into a tailspin that could result in a power vacuum or two rival governments, a dark reminder of the last two years of the 1975-90 civil war.

"This is why we've got to stay alive, survive the next few weeks. And then if we are still a majority, we can elect one of us president that will abide by international law and also abide by the international tribunal of justice (in Hariri's assassination), that will one day, I hope, bring the murderers, bring Bashar al-Assad to trial," Jumblatt said.

The Lebanese leader pressed Washington to act and impose sanctions against Assad.

"Look, as long as we have this tyrant, this butcher in Damascus alive, we won't be able to have a democracy, a stable democracy in Lebanon," said Jumblatt. "So this is where I'm asking and I have asked for effective sanctions against this guy, this regime in Damascus."

A one-time ally of the Syrians and Hezbollah who has sharply criticized U.S. Mideast policy in the past, Jumblatt turned against Damascus after Hariri's assassination and became friendly to Washington. Since then, Hezbollah and its allies have left the government, leading to a political stalemate in the country.