WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has decided to avoid any immediate confrontation with the Iran-backed Islamic militant group Hezbollah in the wake of this week's departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon, according to senior U.S. officials.
Disarming the group's large militia, along with those of others in the troubled country, is a key part of a United Nations resolution that the U.S. co-sponsored last year to end foreign meddling in Lebanon.
Instead, senior U.S. officials say, they plan to focus first on a U.N. verification of Syria's withdrawal, then use America's diplomatic leverage to guarantee free and fair parliamentary elections in Lebanon, which are scheduled for late next month.
The priorities for U.S. policy on Lebanon reflect President Bush's overall foreign affairs agenda for his second term, which emphasizes that the spread of democracy is the real key to America's security.
The U.S. approach in Lebanon is being driven not only by the desire to promote democracy but also by realities on the ground.
Those familiar with the country's politics note that any immediate American demand on Hezbollah to disarm its militia -- as called for in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 -- could backfire.
"Given the fact that America is not the flavor of the month there, it could enhance Hezbollah's chances at the polls," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and currently head of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
The U.N. resolution, passed in September under U.S. and French sponsorship, calls for "the disbanding and disarmament" of the armed militias associated with several political parties in Lebanon.
Hezbollah's is the largest and strongest of these paramilitary forces.
The organization is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations and is known in the West as an Iranian-backed militant group linked to a series of attacks against Israeli and U.S. and other Western targets. But it is also an important political force in Lebanon's large Shiite Muslim community and controls 12 seats in the country's 128-member parliament.
U.S. officials stress that focusing resources on the parliamentary election rather than on disarming Hezbollah carries several other advantages aside from the political signal it sends about the importance of the electoral process.
They claim, for example, that it is probably the best way to detect any residual Syrian influence in the country or attempts by Iran to steer events in its favor.
"That's when we'll see the levers that Syria or Iran might use to tamper with the process," said a senior administration official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
"We'll begin to hear from election officials, from the U.N. and from others if they are trying to influence the process."
To some observers, the most surprising aspect of the administration's approach to Hezbollah is that it has so far made no attempt to exclude the group from the electoral process.
France, a close U.S. ally on issues in Lebanon, has had some influence, arguing persuasively at the highest levels of the U.S. government against confronting the militant group immediately.
"The idea is to encourage them into the electoral process, not push them into a corner," a French diplomat said.
Bush's comments have reflected a conviction that democracy moderates extremism. Last month, when asked about Hezbollah's future, he argued that the pressures of electoral office would focus a lawmaker's attention on local issues such as fixing potholes and providing prosperity rather than on how to attack America.
Senior U.S. officials say they also hope that Hezbollah will face uncomfortable questions about its ties with Iran if it faces Lebanese voters in an open, free election.
U.S. and French officials indicated that the issue of disarming the Lebanese militias would probably be addressed after the May election.
The U.S. approach on Lebanon comes amid difficulties forming a government in Iraq after that nation's Jan. 30 election for a transitional National Assembly. Negotiations among the victorious parties dragged on nearly three months, disillusioning voters and giving new life to the insurgency.
For U.S. officials, the Iraqi experience has reinforced the need to keep the Lebanese election the top priority and ensure that it is held on time.
"Anything beyond May is unacceptable," a senior U.S. official said.