- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

BEIRUT | Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Friday that future U.S. aid to Lebanon depends on the outcome of upcoming elections, a warning aimed at Iranian-backed Hezbollah as it tries to oust the pro-Western faction that dominates the government.

Confident that its alliance will win, Hezbollah criticized Mr. Biden’s visit as a U.S. attempt to influence the June 7 vote and held a mass rally to show its popular support.

Mr. Biden is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years, and the attention shows American concern that the vote could shift power firmly into the hands of Hezbollah. U.S. officials have said before that they will review aid to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, apparently meaning military aid.

“The election of leaders committed to the rule of law and economic reform opens the door to lasting growth and prosperity, as it will here in Lebanon,” Mr. Biden said. The U.S. “will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates.”

The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, and Mr. Biden’s one-day visit was clearly timed to bolster the Western-leaning faction led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora ahead of the vote. He expressed strong support for the government.

“I assure you we stand with you to guarantee a sovereign, secure Lebanon, with strong institutions,” he said after the meeting with President Michel Suleiman.

With the election about two weeks away, Lebanon is in the throes of an increasingly abrasive campaign that has split voters into two main camps. One, made up mainly of Sunnis, favors close ties to America, France and moderate Sunni Arab countries, while the other is dominated by Shi’ites and backed by Iran and Syria.

Mr. Biden said the U.S. did not want to interfere in the elections and tried to steer clear of the political divisions by meeting the neutral leader, Mr. Siniora, and Hezbollah-allied parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

But he signaled a tilt toward America’s allies when he met behind closed doors with leaders of Mr. Siniora’s faction at a private residence. A similar meeting involving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the monthlong Hezbollah war with Israel in 2006 was broadcast on TV and drew months of sharp condemnation from Hezbollah.

The last U.S. vice president to visit Lebanon was George H.W. Bush under President Reagan. He came in October 1983, days after a massive suicide truck bombing destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut airport and killed more than 240.

Mr. Biden’s visit caps a transformation in American policy toward Lebanon. It began four years ago after more than two decades of steering clear of the country long viewed as a quagmire. Pro-Iranian militants targeted Americans with bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s during the civil war and more than 250 Americans were killed. That led to a 12-year U.S. ban on citizens traveling to the country that was lifted in 1997.

But by stepping into Lebanon’s political fray, the United States risks deepening the rift between rival factions. If it does not win, an embittered Hezbollah could take a harder line against its opponents.

While the vice president was still in Beirut, Hezbollah flexed its muscle by holding a mass rally in the southern city of Nabatiyeh to mark the 2000 departure of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.

The Shi’ite group has only 14 seats in the 128-seat parliament, but got veto power after a show of force a year ago when its gunmen overran Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut. Hezbollah and its allies have a total of 58 seats, while the Western-backed majority holds 70.

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