- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton argued Wednesday for a continuation of military aid to Lebanon despite the recent government takeover by the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah and its allies.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mrs. Clinton said that after new Lebanese Prime Minister Nijab Mikati has formed a government, “we will review its composition, its policies, and its behavior to determine the extent of Hezbollah’s political influence over it.”

“I believe still at this point that we should continue supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces,” she said, arguing that strong “military-to-military ties” with the LAF could pay dividends in the way similar bonds with Egypt did.

The Obama administration has requested $100 million in military aid and other foreign assistance to Lebanon for the 2012 fiscal year, though it says the funds will be tied to events.

The U.S. has given the Lebanese military $720 million since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, which controls much of Lebanon’s predominantly Shiite south.

Mrs. Clinton praised Lebanon’s military as a “nonsectarian institution” that “cooperates with the United Nations’ mission in the south.”

“We worry that if the United States does not continue supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces, its capabilities will rapidly deteriorate, security in the south and along the border with Israel will be at risk,” she added.

The LAF stayed on the sidelines during the 2006 conflict, though many fear it could be drawn into a new war with the Jewish state, particularly after a border skirmish last August left five dead.

“The U.S. doesn’t want to be arming two sides of a conflict here,” said David Schenker, a senior fellow of Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Schenker said there is no evidence U.S.-supplied equipment ever fell into Hezbollah’s hands.

But some on the Hill are seeking guarantees.

Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Washington Times that he will soon introduce a bill titled the Hezbollah Anti-Terrorism Act.

He said the bill would limit U.S. aid to the Hezbollah-influenced Lebanese government until President Obama certifies to Congress that no funds go to entities controlled by Hezbollah.

“We must signal to American allies in Lebanon that we will continue to support them, while we vigorously oppose Hezbollah,” said Mr. Berman, California Democrat. “We must set rigorous requirements for the provision of foreign assistance to Lebanon during periods when Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government or determines the composition of it in any way.”

Mr. Berman placed a freeze on assistance to the LAF in August, when he was the committee’s chairman, pending a policy review of the military’s ties with Hezbollah. Aid resumed in November.

An Israeli official told The Times that Jerusalem had communicated its reservations about the issue to the administration in recent weeks but that the upheaval in Egypt and across the Middle East had put the discussion on the back burner.

Hezbollah and its legislative allies toppled Lebanon’s Western-backed government in January.

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