BEIRUT (AFP) – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to  Lebanon on Monday to bolster the troubled country’s new president, as rival politicians still struggle to form a new government.  Rice said she made her lightning trip to "express the United States’ support for Lebanese democracy, for Lebanese sovereignty." After talks with parliament speaker and opposition stalwart Nabih Berri, Rice said that she hoped the disputes over nominations for the key defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs portfolios which have delayed the new cabinet’s formation would be swiftly resolved. "We hope that the composition of the government proceeds and proceeds rapidly," she said.

Earlier she met Sleiman and told him Washington was very supportive of his presidency, describing him as a "very fine man." She also met Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri. "We talked of … the United States’ commitment to a Lebanon that is truly sovereign and independent where foreign interference and foreign intimidation should never be permitted," she said after that meeting. She rejected accusations of US interference in Lebanese politics saying: "We support the democratically elected government of Lebanon, that is what we support." Rice, who was in Beirut after a two-day visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank, rejected charges that the Doha deal was a slap in the face for US policy in the region as it had given the Iran- and Syrian-backed opposition veto power over government decisions. "Obviously in any compromise there are compromises," she said. "But this was an agreement that I think serves the interest of the Lebanese people and since it serves the interest of the Lebanese people, it serves the interest of the United States."

The top US diplomat called for UN action on the disputed Shebaa Farms, a district that remains occupied by Israel but  "The United States believes that the time has come to deal with the Shebaa Farms issue… in accordance with (UN Security Council Resolution) 1701," Rice said after discussing the issue with the Western-backed premier. She told reporters Washington intends to press Ban to "lend his good offices" to resolve the dispute over sovereignty over the district at the meeting place of the borders between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. "The secretary general should intensify his efforts," she said. Resolution 1701 brought an end to a devastating 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in summer 2006 and called for the UN secretary general to propose a border demarcation for the Shebaa Farms.

Rice last visited Lebanon during the devastating 2006 conflict that left more than 1,300 people dead, most of them Lebanese civilians.

At the time, she drew widespread criticism in the Arab world and elsewhere for describing the conflict as "the birth pangs" of a new Middle East.

Monday’s visit came amid a thaw in relations between France and Syria, respectively Lebanon’s former colonial power and its longtime powerbroker until Damascus pulled out its troops in 2005.

Rice last week expressed some reservations about the rapprochement but at the weekend said she was confident that France would send the right message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when he visits Paris next month.