Thursday, May 14, 2009

BEIRUT | U.S. relations with Lebanon could hinge on whether a Hezbollah-led coalition wins June 7 parliamentary elections.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beirut last month and expressed support for “voices of moderation,” many here took it as a sign that the United States is worried about a victory for the so-called March 8 alliance of Hezbollah, another Shi’ite party called Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement of former army commander, retired Gen. Michel Aoun.

The question is whether the Obama administration - or members of the U.S. Congress - might seek to use such a victory to reduce U.S. support for Lebanon and its armed forces, the one truly national institution in an ethnically divided land. Hezbollah has long been listed as a terrorist group by the United States.

Mona Yacoubian, a Lebanon specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said any win for March 8 is likely to be slim. She added that Hezbollah has been trying to lower its profile in advance of the vote to avoid provoking a negative reaction.

The Iran-backed Shi’ite group, which combines a political party with a massive social welfare network and an armed militia, has 11 seats in the current parliament but is running in only 10 constituencies. Its coalition now has 58 seats, while the rival March 14 group holds 70 seats.

“They [Hezbollah leaders] understand the sensitivities and how loaded all of this is,” Ms. Yacoubian said. “They’re not interested in formal levers of power and want to continue to exert influence from behind the scenes.”

Should they win, the March 8 group has offered to set up a coalition government similar to that in place for the past year. The present government is headed by a pro-Western prime minister, but Hezbollah won a veto over major decisions after violent clashes in Beirut a year ago.

On the other hand, the March 14 group, led by the Future Movement of Saad Hariri - son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - has made no pledge to create a new unity government.

The U.S. State Department has declined to give its views on the parliamentary contest. Mrs. Clinton, while appearing to favor March 14, said in Lebanon last month that the U.S. looks “forward to cooperating with the upcoming government.”

A senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition he not be named because he was not authorized to speak for attribution, said U.S. policies would depend on the actions of the next Lebanese government and not necessarily its makeup.

However, Washington has made its preference clear for March 14 - named for the day of a massive demonstration commemorating Rafik Hariri and opposing Syria and Hezbollah.

The demonstration helped initiate Syria’s withdrawal of troops from Lebanon in 2005, an exit known as the Cedar Revolution.

March 14 has led “the only pro-West, democratically elected government in the Arab World,” said David Schenker, a Lebanon specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Schenker predicted that if March 8 wins, the U.S. might reduce aid to Lebanon. Over the past three years, the U.S. has given more than $1 billion to the Lebanese government, including more than $410 million to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

“Since 2005, the [U.S.] administration has supported the March 14-led government by funding Lebanese institutions, especially the LAF,” Mr. Schenker said. “Should the government come under the control of Hezbollah, the Obama administration, prompted by Congress, may start to rethink supporting Lebanon’s military. Conceivably, some in Congress could even press to define Lebanon as a ‘terrorist state.’ Inevitably, the bilateral relationship will suffer.”

Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declined comment.

Eli Khoury, Beirut-based chief executive officer for the advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi in the Levant, predicted that a March 8 win would mean “Lebanon would become one of those rogue countries in the view of U.S. diplomacy.”

Mr. Khoury, whose company does work for March 14, added: “The [Cedar] revolution will have failed.”

Some here see fears of a Hezbollah-led Lebanon as unwarranted, particularly since Lebanon’s complicated political system ensures that no one group has a monopoly on power.

The 128-member legislature must be half-Christian and half-Muslim, with the Christians divided among Orthodox and Catholic parties and Muslims among Shi’ite, Sunni, Druze and Alawite sects. The prime minister must be a Sunni, so Hezbollah would need allies from that sect. The president, elected last year, is always a Christian.

“I can’t see that U.S. policy toward Lebanon would change dramatically, even if March 8 wins. I think there’s been a bit of an exaggeration,” said Abdo Saad, a Lebanese pollster. The U.S. would “have to deal with the government that wins. March 8 isn’t Hamas in Gaza, and it wouldn’t be treated as such.”

However, like U.S. support for pro-Western Palestinians, America’s evident leaning toward the pro-West alternative in Lebanon could backfire and help March 8, especially among voters who see themselves as victims of U.S. and Israeli policies.

Salima Shahin, a shopkeeper from southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah enjoys the most popular support, said, “I’m voting for Hezbollah because they gave us freedom, and that’s the most important thing. We’ve had so many wars. We don’t need help from America.”

Nicholas Noe, a Beirut-based political analyst, said he’s worried that the U.S. Congress “could be easily provoked by what will be labeled as a Hezbollah victory and they will try to obstruct aid to Lebanon.”

Still, he said he doesn’t expect a March 8 win to lead to a U.S. policy of isolating Lebanon.

Instead, he said, such an outcome “would create a whole new set of opportunities for the Obama administration and would wipe the slate clean of Bush administration policy failures in Lebanon. It could actually create favorable circumstances for Hezbollah to disarm and integrate into the LAF.”

• Barbara Slavin and Nicholas Kralev contributed to this story from Washington.

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