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Obama sees Lebanon vote results as boost for stability

The Obama administration on Monday hailed a pro-Western coalition's election win in Lebanon as a force for stability, but played down any short-term prospects for broader Arab-Israeli peace.

world Updated: Jun 09, 2009 06:58 IST

The Obama administration on Monday hailed a pro-Western coalition's election win in Lebanon as a force for stability, but played down any short-term prospects for broader Arab-Israeli peace.

President Barack Obama saw Sunday's polls as the "strongest indications yet of the Lebanese desire for security and prosperity," following the defeat of the pro-Iranian and anti-Israeli Hezbollah movement.

The coalition headed by Saad Hariri, son of slain ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, landed 71 seats in the 128-member parliament against 57 for Hezbollah and its Shiite and Christian allies.

"It is our sincere hope that the next government will continue along the path towards building a sovereign, independent and stable Lebanon," Obama said in a statement.

But analysts and newspapers questioned whether rival factions would be able to form a unity government and ensure the nation, plagued for years by political and sectarian turmoil, is not plunged into renewed violence.

Obama said: "Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion."

But he vowed the United States "would continue to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon, committed to peace, including the full implementation of all United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

"The high turnout and the candidates -- too many of whom know personally the violence that has marred Lebanon -- are the strongest indications yet of the Lebanese desire for security and prosperity," the president said.

Since its 34-day war with Israel ended in August 2006, Hezbollah has defied a post-war UN resolution that calls for all militias to turn in their weapons. It argues that its arsenal is needed to defend the country against Israel.

A senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity that the voting results showed people wanted a state with a national army rather than one with a militia.

He added that Washington still branded Hezbollah a "terrorist organization" group but would change its stance if the group decided to "play by the normal political rules of the game."

The official played down suggestions from reporters that the election amounted to a drop in Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon.

"These elections were primarily about the Lebanese people choosing who they want to represent them in parliament," he said. "This was more about Lebanon than it was about any outside (influence)."

The official also said the Syrian authorities, with whom the Obama administration is stepping up its diplomatic engagement, told US officials they "had no intentions of interfering" in the Lebanese elections.

But the official suggested Syria still holds sway over larger strategic decisions like peace with neighboring Israel.

"At some point there needs to be a Lebanon-Israel track," the official said.

"I personally do not think you are going to see a Lebanon-Israel track right away," he said. "I wouldn't anticipate the Lebanese moving faster than the Syrians."

Murhaf Jouejati, a Middle East scholar at The George Washington University, said the Obama administration will find it easier to talk to the incoming Lebanese government on regional issues, but cannot ignore Syria.

"If Syria feels that the US is trying to broker a separate Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty... I think it and Hezbollah will torpedo that," he added.