WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is reconsidering U.S. economic and military support for Lebanon after the militant Iranian-backed group Hezbollah won a prominent role in the government of the fragile Mideast state where the U.S. has spent millions promoting a pro-Western agenda.
The administration has begun a broad review of political, economic and military assistance to Lebanon in light of the collapse of a U.S.-backed government two weeks ago, U.S. officials said Tuesday. The Obama administration will probably cut or realign that aid if Hezbollah takes over key ministries under a new prime minister, Najib Mikati, who has the backing of Hezbollah, they said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the review is in its preliminary stages and won't be complete until after Lebanon forms a new coalition government. But at least one senior U.S. lawmaker called for the review and demanded an immediate stop to all weapons transfers to Lebanon.
Hezbollah forced the collapse of the previous government, and holds a veto over the make-up of its replacement. The new government is expected to include members of Hezbollah plus other politicians.
The United States considers the Iranian-backed Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has imposed sanctions against the group and its members, with whom U.S. officials are barred from meeting.
The U.S. can avoid Hezbollah-branded officials and still do business with other members of a Lebanese government. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that a Hezbollah-dominated government would have profound consequences.
"A Hezbollah-controlled government would clearly have an impact on our bilateral relationship with Lebanon," Clinton told reporters on Tuesday.
She did not elaborate. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Hezbollah's emergence as powerbroker was a "sad day for Lebanon" that would "render (it) a satellite of Iran."
"I call on President Obama immediately to suspend all weapons transfers to Lebanon and to review carefully all economic assistance programs in order to ensure that they are not inadvertently strengthening Hezbollah," Berman said in a statement.
The officials familiar with the review said it could include slashing economic support for the government and funding for Lebanon's army, depending on the number and placement of Hezbollah members in the cabinet. Some of that money could be redirected to Lebanon-related programs and activities outside the country, the officials said.
Hezbollah controlled two ministries in Hariri's now-defunct unity cabinet and the U.S. officials said it would be difficult to provide any support to a government that contains more than that. They said they were looking in particular at three critical portfolios — Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs. Hezbollah ministers in any of those posts could mean an end to U.S. aid, they said.
At the same time, the mere presence of the Hezbollah-supported Mikati could affect U.S. assistance given the political shifts of power to Republicans in the House, the officials said. Although both Democrat and Republicans have expressed concern about Hezbollah, Republicans have expressed a greater desire to cut U.S. foreign aid and hold more power in the Senate.
Mikati is not a member of Hezbollah and is considered a relative moderate. He served previously as an interim prime minister and the U.S. considered him favorably then, the officials said. But Mikati's new alliance with Hezbollah is seen as tainting him, they said.
Clinton said the United States wants to see a government in Lebanon that reflects the will and independence of its people and does not represent outside interests, such as Syria and Iran.
That, she said, means supporting an international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Saad Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hezbollah wants to end cooperation with the tribunal that is widely expected to indict some of the group's members for the murder of Hariri and 22 other people in a massive truck bomb attack. The Lebanese government funds 49 percent of the budget for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon with U.N. member states picking up the rest of the tab.
"Our bottom lines remain as they always have been," Clinton said. "First, we believe that justice must be pursued and impunity for murder ended. We believe in Lebanon's sovereignty and end to outside interference. As we see what this new government does, we will judge it accordingly."
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor accused Hezbollah and its ally Syria of using "coercion, intimidation and threats of violence . to achieve its political goals."
"The work of the tribunal is of vital importance to stability, security and justice in Lebanon, and it is important that it continue," he said. "It is hard to imagine any government that is truly representative of all of Lebanon would abandon the effort to end the era of impunity for assassinations in the country."
The U.S. has provided Lebanon with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid over the past five years, following the withdrawal of Syrian forces that had controlled the country for decades.
The United States called the fragile Lebanese democracy a counterweight to authoritarian and militant influences in the Middle East and argued that without U.S. support Iran or Syria might fill the vacuum.
Congressional critics of that policy cite a worry that the weapons and equipment could slip into the hands of Hezbollah for use against Israel. Hezbollah, which forced the collapse of the Lebanese coalition government last week, fought a monthlong war with Israel in August 2006.
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