LYNN NEARY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary sitting in for Liane Hansen.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an unannounced stop in Beirut today. She said she hopes the country can hold elections that are free of outside interference. And she said the U.S. will never make any deal to sell out the Lebanese people.
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We think it's important that Lebanon have good relations with their neighbors, including Syria, but that Lebanon is an independent, free, sovereign nation. And there is nothing that we will do in any way that would undermine Lebanon's sovereignty. We don't have a right to do that. And we don't believe that would be the right thing to do.
NEARY: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary. We caught up with her on the bus on the way to the airport in Beirut. Good morning, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN: Good morning, Lynn.
NEARY: So why this visit now to Beirut?
KELEMEN: Lebanon's preparing for parliamentary elections that are in June. And the secretary said these elections are critical. The U.S. is worried that Hezbollah, which is a group on the U.S. terrorism list, will make big gains in the elections. And when asked how the U.S. would deal with a government that has more Hezbollah members in it, she said she didn't want to speculate.
But she said she wants elections to be free of violence, free of intimidation. And she certainly is here to try to boost those, she calls, forces of moderation. She met with the president of the country. And then she laid a wreath in honor of Rafiq Hariri. He's a former prime minister who was killed in a car bombing in 2005. And that was an attack that sparked protests that eventually forced out Syrian military and intelligence forces that were in Lebanon.
NEARY: And what does Secretary Clinton have to say about Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon?
KELEMEN: Well, you know, she sent a pretty powerful signal on that. A top State Department official told us on the way here that Lebanon's one of these countries that needs to be reassured about the U.S. diplomatic effort to reach out to Syria and Iran. This official who asked not to be named, said that the U.S. is making clear that its outreach to Syria won't come at the expense of Lebanon's independence. And Secretary Clinton made a very strong statement about that today. She said we will never make any deal that sells out Lebanon or the Lebanese people.
NEARY: Now, I understand that you flew over Syrian airspace. Is that right?
KELEMEN: We did fly over Syrian airspace while an official was talking to us. And we asked him about it and he didn't really know the procedures about how we did that. But he did say that the U.S. and Syria have definitely opened the door diplomatically.
NEARY: Yeah. Secretary Clinton seems to be doing a lot of reassuring on this trip. As you mentioned, she's reassured Lebanon that the U.S. is committed to its independence. Yesterday in Baghdad, on another surprise visit there, reassured the Iraqis that the U.S. won't abandon them as they start withdrawing troops. How effective are these reassurances, do you think?
KELEMEN: Well, the secretary is very strong here today. You know, we'll see how it plays because she called for no interference but then she also she made clear she was here to support forces of moderation. So, a trip like this could always backfire.
As for Iraq, either she said that the U.S. will be withdrawing carefully and coordinated with the Iraqis. She also said that the U.S. won't abandon Iraqis, that, you know, that there will be a lot of civilian presence there and rebuilding still to continue.
But she also held a town hall meeting where she heard a lot of worries and a lot of, you know, people asking the U.S. to do much more in helping the country's agriculture, helping the country's education system. And even one young man who was very skeptical that Iraqi security forces will be able to keep the peace. And she came after a very bloody week with very deadly suicide bombings.
NEARY: Well, I know, Michele, that you have arrived at your destination, you're getting on a plane. So, thanks so much, Michele.
KELEMEN: My pleasure, Lynn.
NEARY: That was NPR's Michele Kelemen on the phone from Beirut.
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