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Joe Biden, in Lebanon, hints that U.S. might cut aid if Hezbollah wins election

The vice president says the U.S. is not backing any person or party but does support 'certain principles.' Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group, says the U.S. is meddling in Lebanese matters.

May 23, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Vice President Joe Biden showed preelection support for the Lebanese government Friday, prompting a piqued response from the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and highlighting the critical nature of the upcoming parliamentary vote.

Speaking to reporters after arriving in Lebanon amid tight security, Biden warned that U.S. aid to the country could be reevaluated in the event of a win by Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist group.

"I do not come here to back any particular party or any particular person. I come here to back certain principles," Biden said later with President Michel Suleiman. "We will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates."

The June 7 election could determine the course of Lebanon as well as the fate of millions of dollars in Western aid to its fledgling security forces. The U.S. has spent $1.3 billion on Lebanon since 2006, including more than $400 million in military aid for the Western-leaning government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which has the strong backing of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

Now the Hezbollah-led coalition of Shiite Muslim and Christian political groups, backed by Iran and Syria, is mounting a serious challenge to the so-called March 14 alliance of Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze parties that oppose Syria's influence in Lebanon.

Biden's visit drew a quick response from Hezbollah, which accused him and other U.S. officials of meddling in Lebanese affairs.

"The high American interest in Lebanon raises strong suspicion as to the real reason behind it, especially since it has become a clear and detailed intervention in Lebanese affairs," Hezbollah said in a statement reported by news agencies.

Biden's visit came amid heightened tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, which is launching a massive military drill to prepare for a possible Middle East war. Hezbollah publicly urged Lebanese officials to press Americans about Lebanese and Palestinians recently arrested in Lebanon and charged with spying for Israel.

Hours after Biden's arrival, Hezbollah's Al Manar television announced the arrest of another suspect.

In recent years, Lebanon has become a political battleground between the United States and its allies on the one side and a self-described resistance camp aligned with Iran and Syria on the other.

The Obama administration is struggling to map out a course of action if Hezbollah's coalition wins the election, which precedes key elections in Iran that pit moderate reformists against hard-liners.

"I think the Obama administration doesn't have a Plan B should the opposition win [in Lebanon], and they'll hedge their bets until the Iranian election results emerge to see how best to play their Middle East hand," said Shelley Deane, a professor of Middle East studies at Bowdoin College in Maine who is visiting Lebanon.

Biden's visit was the first by a vice president since George H.W. Bush came days after a 1983 barracks bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers.

Biden's visit, which followed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip here last month, underscored Washington's concern about Lebanon and what to do if Hezbollah and its allies win the election.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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