US Warns Lebanon on Militants in GovernmenT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration on Monday warned Lebanon's political leaders that continuing U.S. support for their country will be difficult if the militant Hezbollah movement takes a dominant role in government. The makeup of the Lebanese government is Lebanon's decision, the State Department said. But the larger the role for Hezbollah, the "more problematic" for relations with Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. The United States considers Iranian--backed Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization and has imposed sanctions against it and its members. U.S. officials do not meet with Hezbollah members and U.S. money is not supposed to further the group's activities. Crowley's comments came as Hezbollah moved into position to control the next Lebanese government as it secured enough support in parliament to nominate the candidate for prime minister. "Our view of Hezbollah is very well--known," he told reporters. "We see it as a terrorist organization, and we'll have great concerns about a government within which a Hezbollah plays a leading role." Crowley declined to say what the United States would do if Hezbollah's candidate becomes prime minister and is able to form a government, but he said it would be hard to carry on business as usual if that happens. Asked whether the U.S. would be able to continue economic support for a Hezbollah--controlled government in Lebanon, he replied, "That would be difficult for the United States to do." 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. Washington underwrote Lebanon's army as a counterweight to Hezbollah, 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. Since 2006, the U.S. has provided four kinds of security assistance to Lebanon, the bulk of which has been about $500 million in sales of weapons and equipment such as mortars, rifles, grenade launchers, ammunition, body armor, radios and Humvee utility vehicles. The U.S. also has increased its spending on military education and training for Lebanese officers and on programs designed to improve Lebanon's ability to counter terrorism threats. Rep. Howard Berman, a Democrat and the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was among lawmakers who last year blocked $100 million in U.S. military aid to Lebanon. They relented and allowed the money to go through after the White House gave assurances in classified briefings that the aid bolsters both Lebanese and U.S. national security and would not be hijacked by Hezbollah. Berman's successor as head of the committee, Rep. Ileana Ros--Lehtinen, a Republican, has raised similar concerns.