By ANNE GEARAN, AP,  NEW YORK — Saddled with debt and seeking economic ties beyond its former patron and overlord Syria, the newly elected government of Lebanon is looking for international help while the United States keeps up diplomatic pressure on Damascus to stay out of the way. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora set a meeting Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and representatives of European and Muslim nations as he charts a delicate course of political independence after 29 years effectively occupied by neighboring Syria.

After decades of civil war and political turmoil, Lebanon has one of the highest national debts in the world _ measured as 165 percent of its gross national product or about $36 billion. Saniora hopes to win international debt relief, although most of the debt is held by Lebanese creditors, and pledges to stimulate the country’s sluggish economy. The conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly comes as a U.N. investigation into a political assassination in Lebanon draws closer to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s inner circle.  Assad skipped the annual gathering of nations in New York, and Syria was the only nation among 190 attending not to address the delegates.

Under pressure, Syria allowed U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis to question Assad intimates last week about the February killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The visit highlighted the vulnerability of Assad’s government as international pressure mounts over its involvement in Lebanon. The Bush administration and the new Iraqi government claim that Syria is allowing foreign terrorists and arms to flow over its border with Iraq.

Mehlis has until Oct. 25 to complete his investigation.

Syria has denied involvement in the murder. On Sunday, it promised to cooperate with the inquiry, which began June 17.

Mehlis has said there are no Syrian suspects, and those he wants to question will stand as witnesses.

Lebanese media have said they include Syria’s last intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazale; two aides; and Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, who was intelligence chief in Lebanon until five years ago. Mehlis’ talks at a later stage could include a meeting with Assad.

The United States has not directly blamed Syria for Hariri’s killing, but it withdrew its ambassador from Damascus to protest what U.S. diplomats called the overall security and political situation in Lebanon.

The administration claims some credit for fostering a new democratic government in Lebanon, largely through a U.N. resolution a year ago. The resolution, sponsored with France, called for immediate Syrian withdrawal and for political self-determination in Lebanon.

Syria initially ignored the U.N. statement, but it later formed a framework to monitor troop withdrawal and free elections that brought Saniora to power.

Rice also was to meet with representatives of other Arab states and with officials of the Group of Eight world industrial powers.