- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The United States yesterday criticized Iranian overtures to Saudi Arabia suggesting the two countries cooperate to resolve a political crisis between the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Shi’ite group Hezbollah.

Tehran’s proposal, made during a visit to Riyadh last week by Ali Larijani, head of the Supreme National Security Council, is aimed at giving the Iranian-backed Hezbollah a bigger role in the Lebanese Cabinet, diplomats said.

“We certainly wouldn’t support any effort to try to negotiate something over and above the heads of the Siniora government,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

“As for any political arrangements or accommodations that Prime Minister Siniora might come to with the various factions in Lebanon, those are going to be decisions for him to make,” Mr. McCormack said. “But we won’t work with individual ministers from Hezbollah and we won’t meet with them.”

Clashes between Hezbollah-led protesters and government supporters this week claimed at least three lives and caused dozens of injuries and property damage in Beirut.

“What you saw [Tuesday] was irresponsible in the violence that erupted,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said as she flew yesterday to Paris, where international donors are expected to pledge billions of dollars to help Mr. Siniora rebuild an economy devastated by last summer’s war with Israel.

Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Shi’ite-dominated Iran are usually tense, was said to be suspicious of Tehran’s overture, but diplomats said Riyadh is looking for ways to help Mr. Siniora, whom Washington also supports.

Details of Mr. Larijani’s meeting with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a senior Saudi Foreign Ministry official who was a longtime ambassador to Washington, were not available. However, Reuters news agency quoted Lebanese “political sources” as saying that any deal also would address plans for a U.N. tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 slaying of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr. Siniora arrived in Paris yesterday for the donors conference, along with about 30 foreign ministers and representatives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Union.

“Not helping Lebanon will be much more expensive than helping it,” he said after meeting with French President Jacques Chirac.

Mr. Chirac said France would extend a $650 million loan at “very advantageous” terms, and the European Union pledged $522 million in aid and loans.

Miss Rice said the United States would offer $770 million, including $220 million in military aid. Last year, Washington pledged $230 million.

The pledges at the Paris conference are expected to total about $5 billion. The government estimates its needs at about $3.5 billion to repair buildings and infrastructure. In addition, Lebanon’s debt is about $40 billion, some of it dating to the 1970s and the country’s long and bitter civil war.

Mr. McCormack said Miss Rice was accompanied by chief executives of U.S. companies with plans to invest in Lebanon, although he did not name them.

“Long after direct U.S. government assistance has gone through the pipeline and been delivered, investment by foreign companies and U.S. companies is going to continue to create jobs and opportunity in Lebanon,” he said.

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