- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

BEIRUT (AP) - The United States said Tuesday it is providing Lebanon with 12 unmanned military aircraft in the coming months, the latest effort to bolster the fragile Mideast nation.

Washington hopes a strengthened Lebanese military would extend state authority across the country, where the militant Hezbollah is gaining power with its arsenal of rockets that threaten another U.S. ally, neighboring Israel.

A strong national army could be a counter to Hezbollah’s weapons and could deprive the militants of the excuse to keep their arms.

U.S. officials said their support is intended to help Lebanon maintain internal security, fight terrorism and secure its borders.

Since 2006, the U.S. has provided Lebanon with more than a billion dollars in assistance, including $410 million to support security. But the aid has largely been equipment, vehicle and supplies, drawing ridicule from critics who contrast that with the high-tech weapons provided to Israel.

The army was divided during the 1975-90 civil war along sectarian lines and rebuilt after the conflict largely as an internal security force.

The all-volunteer, 70,000-strong force has managed to maintain a certain level of stability in the country, particularly in the last four years after Syrian forces were forced to withdraw in the political upheaval after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

It has been criticized in Lebanon for staying on the sidelines, first when Israel pounded Hezbollah forces in 2006 and then again when Hezbollah militants swept into Beirut neighborhoods in 2008 in sectarian fighting that killed 81 people.

But that criticism has since dwindled since the army has managed to reassert control of the country.

Washington has in recent months stepped up its program to aid the Lebanese military, with a decision to supply battle tanks _ the first since the early 1980s _ after Russia promised in December to give Lebanon 10 MiG-29 fighter jets, its first fixed-wing combat aircraft.

The statement Tuesday said the “Raven” aircraft the U.S. is providing performs remote reconnaissance and surveillance, identifies targets, provides protection and security and reports on military operations in urban areas and the results of battles.

The “Raven” has an advanced day and night electronic sensor providing immediate intelligence information, it said, adding that Lebanese air force members are in the United States training on operating the aircraft.

An embassy statement issued Monday said U.S. officials discussed with Lebanon’s defense minister during a visit to Washington earlier this month continued U.S. support to the army to help it maintain internal security, fight terrorism, secure Lebanon’s borders, and implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended a devastating 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war in southern Lebanon.

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