- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

BEIRUT (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden reinforced U.S. support for Lebanon’s government Friday ahead of key parliamentary elections that could see the pro-Western faction ousted by Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies.

Hezbollah has accused Washington of trying to influence the June 7 election in favor of the pro-Western faction that dominates the government. The militant group said Friday that the visit by Biden and an earlier one by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised “strong suspicion and amounted to a clear and detailed interference in Lebanon’s affairs.”

Biden is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years and the second from the Obama administration in about a month, following Clinton’s trip. The attention underscores Washington’s concerns about a possible win by Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.

The White House said Biden’s visit was meant “to reinforce the United States’ support for an independent and sovereign Lebanon.”

With the election about two weeks away, this deeply divided nation is in the throes of an increasingly abrasive election campaign that has split voters into two main camps. A pro-Western camp made up mainly of Sunnis favors close ties to America, France and moderate Sunni Arab countries while the other faction is dominated by Shiites and backed by U.S. foes Iran and Syria.

Hezbollah, which is highly critical of U.S. Mideast policy and has a strong anti-Israeli agenda, is looking to strengthen its political hold beyond the veto power it currently has in the government. The Shiite group has only 14 seats in the 128-seat parliament, but got the veto power after a show of force a year ago when its gunmen overran Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut.

The coalition dominated by the heavily armed group stands a good chance of winning, which could increase the influence of its sponsors Iran and Syria in the region. Israel and U.S. Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are concerned about the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially through the militant groups Tehran backs such as Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza.

U.S. officials have said they will review assistance to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, a warning clearly aimed at Hezbollah and its allies.

The U.S. has provided Lebanon with more than a billion dollars in assistance since 2006, including $410 million to the military and the police. The White House said Biden will announce further assistance for the Lebanese military while in the country.

Biden’s visit caps a transformation in American policy toward Lebanon that began four years ago after more than two decades of largely steering away from a country that has been viewed as a quagmire. Pro-Iranian militants targeted Americans with bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s during the civil war, leading to a 12-year U.S. ban on Americans traveling to the country that was lifted in 1997.

The last U.S. vice president to visit Lebanon was George H.W. Bush, who was serving with President Ronald Reagan and came to the country in October 1983, days after a massive suicide truck bombing destroyed the U.S. Marine base at Beirut airport, killing more than 240 members of the U.S. military.

Biden flew into Beirut airport coming from Kosovo, closing a three-day tour of the southeastern European region that also took him to Bosnia and Serbia. Lebanese military helicopters hovered over the Lebanese capital to provide security as a motorcade of about dozen cars sped through the city center on its way to the presidential palace in the suburban hills of Baabda.

During the visit scheduled to last a few hours, Biden met with President Michel Suleiman, a neutral former army commander elected a year ago by consensus after a nearly two-year political crisis that almost drove the country into another conflict like the 1975-90 civil war.

Biden’s visit is seen here as a boost for the standing of the Lebanese president and the military. Both could play a pivotal role in stabilizing the country after the elections and be partners the United States could continue to work with should the Hezbollah-led coalition wins.

Biden will also meet the pro-Western prime minister and the speaker of parliament, who is aligned with Hezbollah, the White House said. The vice president will end his visit with a ceremony at the airport with Lebanon’s defense minister.

Biden last visited Lebanon in 2005 as a senator during that year’s parliamentary elections.

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