Clinton Visits Lebanon as Key Elections Loom

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

BEIRUT, April 26 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Lebanon on Sunday in a show of support for its pro-Western government, weeks before critical elections that could increase the influence of Iran and Syria.

U.S. authorities are concerned that an alliance of parties led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah could win the June 7 balloting. The United States considers the Iranian-financed group a terrorist organization.

"The Lebanese people have a lot at stake in this election," Clinton said at a news conference at the presidential palace. "We certainly hope that the election will be free of intimidation and outside interference and that the results . . . will continue a moderate, positive direction that will benefit all the people of Lebanon."

Lebanon has received more than $1 billion in U.S. assistance since 2005, when Syria was forced under international pressure to end its 29-year military occupation after protests in Beirut. About half the aid has gone toward strengthening Lebanon's military to create a counterweight to militias such as the heavily armed Hezbollah.

Although the United States is concerned about the elections, it is not clear how the Obama administration would respond in the event of a victory by the Hezbollah-led alliance. Under Lebanon's complicated political system, which allots quotas for different religious communities, Hezbollah would almost certainly be part of a coalition government. State Department officials said the composition of the government and its policies would determine whether the United States reduces its aid after the election.

Ibrahim Moussawi, head of Hezbollah's information department, complained after Clinton's visit of "double standards," saying that the U.S. government wants Islamist groups to participate in elections but refuses to accept the results when they win. That happened in 2006, when the militant group Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections, only to be shunned by the United States and other Western nations.

Clinton's visit, at the end of a three-day Middle East trip, comes as U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have become concerned about growing Iranian influence in the region.

The Obama team has signaled a willingness to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria. At the same time, the administration is trying to reassure its Arab allies that they won't be sacrificed in the process.

Such fears are particularly acute in Lebanon, which has lived for years under the shadow of its larger, more powerful neighbor, Syria.

"The United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people," Clinton declared, striking the podium for emphasis at a news conference.

During her two-hour visit, Clinton delivered a letter to President Michel Suleiman from President Obama expressing support for Lebanon's sovereignty. Clinton then traveled to a hangarlike structure in downtown Beirut to lay a wreath at the tomb of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former prime minister known for his resistance to Syrian interference. He was killed in a 2005 bombing that many Lebanese blame on Syria. Syria has denied the charge.

Clinton was accompanied to the flower-decked tomb by Hariri's son and political heir, Saad. He leads the pro-Western coalition that is the largest group in parliament. Clinton emphasized that the Obama administration would continue to support a U.N. tribunal investigating Rafiq al-Hariri's killing. U.N. investigators have implicated Syrian officials in the attack.

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