The United States has demanded that Syria "dismantle" Lebanon's Hizbullah group, US National Security adviser Condoleeza Rice was quoted as saying to an Israeli newspaper on Friday.

 

"At every opportunity, we have asked Syria to stop supporting terrorism, dismantle Hizbullah," said Rice in an interview published in the daily Yediot Aharonot.

 

Hizbullah Secretary General
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

Washington includes Syria on a State Department list of states that suppport "terrorist" organisations, a charge Damascus categorically denies.

 

 Hizbullah spearheaded a resistance movement to oust Israel from south Lebanon following a 22-year occupation until May 2000.

 

Today the group is an influential political force in Lebanese politics and holds 12 out of 128 seats in parliament. It runs schools, charities, and hospitals.

 

Lebanon's Deputy House Speaker Eli Ferzli dismissed Rice's calls, saying Beirut would disarm Hizbullah when a comprehensive and just Middle East peace was achieved.

 

"The dismantling of Hizbullah is something we will do voluntarily - Hizbullah will do it voluntarily - but when there's peace," said Ferzli.

 

Both Christians and Muslims "consider Hizbullah to be a resistance group and result of Israeli aggression," he added.

 

He called on the United States to end its "double standards" in the Middle East peace process and play a just and fair role.

 

"This business of dismantling Hizbullah...it can't happen. It will create a war within Lebanon," stressed Ferzli.

 

Lebanon's deputy house speaker said images of dead Palestinians beamed on television screens have inflamed sentiments among Lebanon, making it more difficult to disarm Hizbullah.

 

Rice's comments coincided with US Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region. Ferzli said the National Security Adviser's comments were aimed at putting pressure on Lebanon and Syria "to compel them to behave against their convictions."