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Vote Could Benefit Lebanese Militants, U.S. Official Warns

Hezbollah may gain seats in parliament. Bush presses Syrian leader to pull troops.

March 03, 2005|By a Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush stepped up U.S. demands Wednesday that Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon, a senior administration official was cautioning Congress that the militant party Hezbollah could gain new power in upcoming Lebanese elections.

The official, acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, said the Shiite Muslim group could gain politically in elections after the resignation of the Syrian-backed government in Beirut this week.

He made the comments as Bush focused new demands on the Syrian government to remove an estimated 16,000 troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon.

Bush, addressing a community college audience in Maryland, bluntly demanded of Syrian President Bashar Assad, "Get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon so that good democracy has a chance to flourish ... in Lebanon and throughout the greater Middle East."

But Satterfield, addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned that elections could benefit Hezbollah, which holds 12 of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

"Hezbollah is a political force in Lebanon," Satterfield said. "In view of potential developments on the ground which open the scope for true, free and fair elections, the possibility does exist that Hezbollah will be able to obtain more parliamentary seats than it otherwise would have been able to."

Satterfield said Hezbollah had "significant strength" in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut. He attributed its influence to the perception that it was "less corrupt and more effective in providing basic services than the all-too-absent Lebanese government."

Without a capable Lebanese administration, "Hezbollah has stepped into that void," Satterfield said, adding that carefully targeted aid could help a new government perform better.

The United States considers Hezbollah, which has long undertaken attacks on Israel, a terrorist organization despite arguments that it has provided social and economic programs in Lebanon, Satterfield said.

Syria has offered to withdraw troops within several months, saying it wants to avoid chaos, but State Department officials have said they are not concerned that a quick pullout by Syrian forces would destabilize the country. The department reiterated its demand for a "full and immediate" withdrawal in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

"Those are the magic words, and we haven't heard them yet," said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. "We've heard a variety of things, none of which gets to the heart of the matter.... Words are one thing, actions are another."

Satterfield was dispatched to Lebanon last month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and was in the country when the government led by Syrian-supported Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned amid massive opposition protests that followed Hariri's killing.

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