BEIRUT AND CAIRO — Arriving amid heated preparations for Lebanon's parliamentary elections, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed support Sunday for a Western-backed coalition in a close race against an alliance led by Hezbollah and supported by Iran and Syria.
Clinton's brief visit to Beirut, the first since President Obama took office, was a sign of how important it is to Washington that Lebanon not return to factional fighting. The three-hour stopover came as the U.S. is attempting to improve ties with Tehran and Damascus, which for years have been accused of manipulating Lebanese politics with violence and assassinations.
"We believe strongly that the Lebanese must be able to choose their representatives in open and fair elections, free of intimidation and foreign interference," Clinton said at a news conference after her meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. "Beyond the elections, we will continue to support the voices of moderation in Lebanon . . . Our ongoing support for the Lebanese armed forces remains a pillar of our bilateral cooperation."
Clinton, who on Saturday made an unannounced visit to Baghdad, reassured Lebanon's anti-Syrian political parties led by Sunni Muslim leader Saad Hariri that rapprochement between Washington and Damascus would not happen at the expense of Lebanon.
The Obama administration has opened diplomatic channels to the Baath Party in Syria, ending a policy of isolation favored by former President George W. Bush. Many in Lebanon fear that detente between the U.S. and Syria would allow Damascus to restore its influence over Lebanon.
Clinton's visit coincided with the fourth anniversary of the pullout of Syrian troops from the country after almost 30 years of occupation.
"There is nothing that we would do in any way that would undermine Lebanon's sovereignty," Clinton said. "I want to assure any Lebanese citizen that the United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people."
Lebanon is politically divided between the March 14 coalition of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties backed by the West and a Hezbollah-led group supported by Iran and Syria.
During her visit, Clinton laid a wreath at the tomb of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of the current Sunni leader, who was killed in a massive bombing in February 2005.
The assassination was largely blamed on Syria. Damascus denies involvement.
In the last few years, Washington has been keen on showing political support to Lebanon's government as well as government forces. The Lebanese army benefits from hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military aid.
It remains to be seen how Washington would react if Hezbollah's power in the new government increases as a result of the June elections. The Shiite Muslim militant group is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
"The policy of the United States is one of interference," Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi told the group's Al Manar TV. "This interference is not in the interest of the countries they interfere in, but to serve the American interests in the region."
The U.S. has said it is unwilling to open a dialogue with Hezbollah, but many observers believe that Washington cannot afford to adopt a hard line against the new Lebanese government. Even if Hezbollah wins, Lebanon is run by a consensus system, making it difficult for one group to dominate.