- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

‘Beauty contest’

A leading Lebanese businessman and politician warned White House officials that foreign aid for the reconstruction of his country is becoming a “beauty contest” to see who can outspend Hezbollah and that donors are missing an opportunity to promote long-term reforms.

Fouad Makhzoumi, on his Washington visit last week, urged the United States and other donor countries to link aid to pledges from the Lebanese government to change its electoral law to guarantee proportional representation, to promote the independence of the courts and to restructure and strengthen the security forces, our correspondent Sharon Behn reports.

Hezbollah, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, began spending vast sums of money immediately after the cease-fire in the 34-day war with Israel. Much of the money is supplied by Iran and Syria, both countries seen as supporters of terrorism. Hezbollah also has strong support from Lebanon’s majority Shi’ite Muslims in the southern part of the country, which is controlled by Hezbollah militias.

“Every time something like this happens, we reconstruct and we don’t reform,” Mr. Makhzoumi told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “Let us not get into a situation where it is a race of who can spend money how fast and how much.”

A graduate of Michigan Technological University, Mr. Makhzoumi left Lebanon to pursue a business career in Saudi Arabia before returning to his homeland to found the National Dialogue Party in 2004.

The party, which Mr. Makhzoumi said has 7,000 members, boycotted the 2005 elections that were clouded by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr. Makhzoumi said he recommended in his talks with White House officials that the administration keep “an open mind” and deal with all parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.

Hezbollah also has a strong grass-roots, social-services-oriented component, as well as two seats in the Lebanese government and a significant minority in parliament.

Korean diplomacy

The United States and its allies are trying to break the diplomatic deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program by offering the Stalinist nation an incentive to return to multilateral talks, South Korean officials said.

Woo Sang-ho, a spokesman for South Korea’s ruling Uri Party, said this week that the Bush administration would offer North Korea the chance for a bilateral meeting if the intransigent government agrees to reopen six-party talks designed to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons buildup. The talks include diplomats from both Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

“The United States now has a position that a North Korean-U.S. bilateral meeting can open even before six-way talks, if North Korea expresses its firm willingness to return to the six-way talks,” Mr. Woo told reporters in Seoul.

He briefed them on closed-door talks Monday between Uri Party officials and U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow. The U.S. Embassy would not comment on the talks, and State Department officials last week denied reports about bilateral contacts.

In another development, South Korea’s ambassador in Washington said the United States, South Korea and Japan have agreed to meet without China and Russia to discuss how to reopen talks.

“The [South] Korean government has agreed to the holding of three-party consultative talks,” Ambassador Lee Tae-sik told Japan’s Kyodo News agency. He said the meeting could take place as early as next week.

North Korea agreed to talks with the other five nations a year ago on Sept. 19 but walked out of the negotiations two months later, complaining about U.S. sanctions. Washington slapped financial sanctions on a bank in Macao suspected of laundering counterfeit U.S. dollars for North Korea.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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