American Involvement Deepens in Lebanon

The Associated Press
Friday, February 2, 2007; 12:12 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A few years ago, American aid to Lebanon was measured in the number of dairy cows a U.S. program gave to farmers. Now it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, plus military help, as Washington tries to prop up a government seen as threatened by Iran and Syria.

Hezbollah, Iran's ally, says it is determined to wrench Lebanon away from the U.S. camp _ part of the reason it has launched its campaign to bring down Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

Members of the Hezbollah-led opposition see U.S. support as meddling that replaced Syria's heavy-handed control of Lebanese politics. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly called Saniora's Cabinet "the Feltman government" _ a reference to the U.S. ambassador in Beirut, Jeffrey Feltman, who meets regularly with Saniora and his ministers.

Government backers insist Washington plays no role in Cabinet decisions _ or its makeup, unlike Syria, which all but hand-picked the government, until its domination of Lebanon ended in 2005.

But U.S. diplomatic and economic support has been vital for Saniora's ability to stand up to Hezbollah's demands that his government be dissolved and replaced by one giving the Shiite militant group and its allies more power.

Last week, the United States pledged $770 million in aid for Lebanon at a Paris donors' conference that raised a total of $7.6 billion. The money is on top of $230 million Washington pledged at a meeting on reconstruction after the Hezbollah-Israel summer war.

That's a massive increase over the annual $35 million that the United States was giving Lebanon up until 2005 _ largely for development projects, some military training, a poultry program _ and the dairy cows.

In recent weeks, Washington has also provided Saniora's government with military supplies, such as Humvee vehicles. After assassinations in 2006 of pro-government politicians opposing Syria, the FBI helped investigate.

For the U.S., the assistance aims to fend off what American officials have called an Iranian and Syrian attempted "coup" against Saniora's government. It comes as the U.S. has taken a more confrontational stand against Iran, aiming to push back its influence in the Mideast _ particularly in Iraq.

"This is a strong symbol of the American people's support for and commitment to the future of Lebanon," President Bush said of U.S. aid to Lebanon. He implicitly blamed Hezbollah for "creating chaos" and said those responsible "must be called to account."

Nasrallah, in turn, has accused Bush of seeking to ignite civil war between pro-opposition Shiites and pro-government Sunni factions. "The prepared (U.S.) plan ... is for civil war," he told Shiite supporters Tuesday on their holiest day of Ashoura, amid chants of "Death to America."

The summer war with Israel hardened the stances of both sides in Lebanon's political divide. Many Saniora supporters blame Hezbollah for sparking Israel's devastating bombing by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid.

Hezbollah accuses Washington of encouraging Israel in launching its summer war and blamed the Saniora government for colluding with the Israelis _ fueling its stance that Washington's influence should be purged from the Lebanese government.

The Hezbollah-led opposition demands the formation of a new government in which they would have one-third plus one of the seats, enough to give them veto power over key decisions. It has waged a two-month campaign of street protests and sit-ins, which turned violent last week, killing seven and threatening to slide the country toward civil war.

Both the government and opposition have elected members and have popular followings countrywide. Hezbollah and its allies had just under a third of seats in the Cabinet until November, when they quit over the political crisis.

The opposition accuses the United States of using its support to block a resolution to the crisis.

The prime minister and his allies insist there are no political strings attached to U.S. or other international aid.

"They don't dictate to us. We discuss with them what's good and object to what's not," Walid Jumblatt, a senior pro-government politician, said on al-Jazeera television late Wednesday.

Political analyst Rajeh Khoury called the opposition accusations "exaggerated political rhetoric" aimed at undermining the government. "America did not interfere in the formation of the (Saniora) government, like Syria used to interfere in the formation of governments."

The polarization over the U.S. role prompted Feltman to declare after a recent meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, that Washington "is not interested in imposing solutions." Washington supports "peaceful dialogue ... free from intimidation, fear, and threats," he said.

The increased aid is a major shift in U.S. policy in Lebanon in the last few years.

The U.S. was effectively driven out of Lebanon when suicide bombers _ who the U.S. says were linked to Hezbollah, a claim the group denies _ struck two U.S. Embassy compounds and destroyed a U.S. Marine base in 1983 and 1984, killing 270 Americans.

The United States backed an Arab-brokered deal that ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and enshrined Syrian domination.

But Washington's de facto tolerance of Syria's control in Lebanon changed after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in a truck bombing that was widely blamed on Syria. The United States, in a dispute with Syria over Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ratcheted up the pressure on Damascus, eventually forcing it to withdraw its army from Lebanon.

© 2007 The Associated Press