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US military aid at stake in Lebanon elections

The US administration will suspend its military aid to Lebanon if an alliance led by the Islamist group Hezbollah wins Sunday’s elections, but will seek to maintain ties, experts say.

world Updated: Jun 04, 2009 14:37 IST

The US administration will suspend its military aid to Lebanon if an alliance led by the Islamist group Hezbollah wins Sunday’s elections, but will seek to maintain ties, experts say.

US officials are anxiously eyeing the outcome of Sunday’s vote which pits the Hezbollah-led opposition backed by US foes Iran and Syria against the current US-backed, Sunni-led parliamentary majority.

Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by Washington, stands a good chance of winning the vote along with its allies.

But Washington has repeatedly said that it will have no dealings with Hezbollah, which fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006.

And experts agree that a Hezbollah victory at the ballot box would pose a major dilemma for the fledgling administration of President Barack Obama.

On the one hand Obama would not continue to deliver US arms and military aid to a government controlled even indirectly by the Islamist party which opposes peace with Israel, but on the other he would not want to give Iran a chance to step into any void.

“I think the administration will very much want to find a way to maintain a relationship with Lebanon,” said Toni Verstandig, a former State Department undersecretary on the Middle East who was part of Obama’s transition team.

“It’s very much about maintaining the institutional structure of the state of Lebanon and continuing to nurture that institutional structure,” she added.

US Vice President Joe Biden warned last month during a landmark trip to Lebanon that Washington would weigh its continued military assistance on the outcome of the tightly contested elections.

“The US will evaluate the shape of its assistance program based on the composition of the new government and the policies it is advocating,” Biden told reporters after meeting President Michel Sleiman on his first visit to the Middle East since taking office.

Since 2006, the United States has supplied close to 500 million dollars in military aid to Lebanon, including aircraft, tanks, light arms, vehicles and training.

Steven Cook, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that even a small Hezbollah election victory would sound the death knell for the US military aid program.

In addition to being a resistance movement and social welfare network, Hezbollah has secured Shiites a key position in Lebanon’s complex political balance.

But Hezbollah is the only group which did not surrender its arms at the end of the bloody Lebanese civil war which raged from 1975 to 1990 and today is equipped with more fire power than even the regular Lebanese army.

“We have to keep in mind that nobody in Washington ever does nuance very well,” said Cook.

“If it is reported that Hezbollah and its allies have done pretty well, I think it will be pretty quick that the Obama administration reverses its course on providing weapons to the Lebanese armed forces.”

That’s a scenario that raises huge concerns for Paul Salem, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as the polls may end in an ambiguous outcome because of Lebanon’s complex voting system which guarantees representation to all faiths.

“Whatever majority might be gained by either side on June 7 will be very slim,” said Salem.

“The United States, its European and Arab allies should show strong support for President Suleiman, who plays a balancing and moderating role in the system, and for the national army, which although not all-powerful, plays a critical role in maintaining security and stability in the country,” he advised.

With the situation so delicate and amid a push to resume a dialogue with Iran, Obama has for the time being remained cautious, evading questions on what eventual ties would be possible with Hezbollah.

“If at some point they are elected as a head of state -- or a head of state is elected in Lebanon that is a member of that organization -- then that would raise these issues. That hasn’t happened yet.”

First Published: Jun 04, 2009 11:44 IST