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Ex-premier warns against cutting U.S. aid to Lebanese military

Hezbollah, Iran would benefit, Siniora says

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2011

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is warning that a congressional effort to cut funds to the country's armed forces would be "a gift" to Hezbollah and its Iranian allies.

The Western-backed Mr. Siniora, premier from 2005 to 2009, raised his concern during meetings in Washington late last week with administration officials and members of Congress.

He blasted calls to suspend aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which have intensified since January when Hezbollah and its legislative allies toppled the country's unity government and nominated their handpicked candidate for prime minister.

"Even if we looked at it from the angle of the American administration, if they do stop the assistance, it would be the best-ever gift given to Hezbollah and the Iranians," Mr. Siniora told The Washington Times.

"Assisting the Lebanese army is assisting the legitimate authority of the Lebanese state."

He dismissed charges that aid to the army will end up in the hands of Hezbollah, which the United States lists as a terrorist group.

"Hezbollah is not short of additional weapons," he said.

The U.S. has given the Lebanese army $720 million since 2005, following the end of Syria's occupation of Lebanon and the electoral victory of Mr. Siniora's pro-Western March 14 Alliance.

Elliott Abrams, then a deputy national security adviser, told The Times that the Bush administration's goal was to make the army a "counter to the growing strength of Hezbollah," which controls large swaths of Lebanon's south and the capital Beirut.

But the growing influence of Hezbollah within Lebanon, and now within the Lebanese government, has sparked increasing concern that U.S. aid could benefit the Shiite Islamist group.

Rep. Howard L. Berman of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blocked $100 million in aid to the Lebanese army in August pending an administration review of Hezbollah's influence within the military.

He is pushing legislation to limit U.S. aid to Lebanon until the president certifies that "no ministry, agency, or instrumentality of the Lebanese government that receives American foreign assistance is effectively controlled by Hezbollah."

The prospect of an American void has prompted repeated Iranian offers to arm the Lebanese military, according to a Lebanese source close to the discussions.
During Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's October visit to Lebanon and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's November visit to Iran, the Iranians prodded the Lebanese to accept aid from Tehran.

The Iranians said they considered Lebanon "the first line of defense against the Zionist entity." The source said the Lebanese side spurned the overture, citing its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March that the United States will decide on future aid to the Lebanese army after Nijab Mikati, the Hezbollah-backed candidate for prime minister, forms a government.

A senior Israeli official told The Times that the Jewish state is carefully monitoring developments in Lebanon.

"Naturally, we think that funding should be given to those who are committed to observing the tranquility and the stability, and with the ongoing effort to build the government in Lebanon, it's not totally clear where this army's going," the official said. "If Hezbollah has major positions, that's problematic."

While Hezbollah did not actively participate in the 2006 fighting between Israel and Lebanon, some fear it could be drawn into a new cross-border conflict, particularly after a deadly border skirmish last August between Israeli and Lebanese forces.

Mr. Siniora said that it was conceivable the Lebanese army could fight Israel.

"The army is supposed, in fact, to defend the country. And wherever a decision is taken by the political authority, yes, to really face the challenge of any attack by Israel, yes, the army has to do it," he said.

Asked about the concern that the U.S. could find itself arming two sides in a war, Mr. Siniora laughed: "Don't arm the Israeli army," he said.

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