Biden: Aid to Lebanon Depends on Elections

Vice President Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora at Government House in Beirut.
Vice President Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora at Government House in Beirut. (By Hussein Malla -- Associated Press)
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By Sam F. Ghattas
Associated Press
Saturday, May 23, 2009

BEIRUT, May 22 -- Vice President Biden said Friday that future U.S. aid to Lebanon depends on the outcome of upcoming elections, a warning aimed at the Iranian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah as it tries to oust the pro-Western faction that dominates the government here.

Confident its alliance will win, Hezbollah criticized Biden's visit as a U.S. attempt to influence the June 7 vote and held a mass rally to show its popular support.

Biden is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years, and the attention shows American concern that the vote could shift power firmly into the hands of Hezbollah. U.S. officials have said they will review aid to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, apparently meaning military aid.

"The election of leaders committed to the rule of law and economic reform opens the door to lasting growth and prosperity, as it will here in Lebanon," Biden said, adding that the United States would evaluate its assistance programs "based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates."

The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, and Biden's one-day visit was clearly timed to bolster the Western-leaning faction led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora ahead of the vote.

"I assure you we stand with you to guarantee a sovereign, secure Lebanon, with strong institutions," Biden said after meeting with President Michel Suleiman.

With the election about two weeks away, Lebanon is in the throes of an increasingly abrasive campaign that has split voters into two main camps. One, made up mainly of Sunni Muslims, favors close ties to the United States, France and moderate Sunni Arab countries, while the other is dominated by Shiite Muslims and backed by U.S. foes Iran and Syria.

Biden said the United States did not want to interfere in the elections, and he tried to steer clear of the political divisions by meeting with the neutral president, Siniora and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who is allied with Hezbollah.

But he signaled a tilt toward America's allies when he met behind closed doors with leaders of Siniora's faction at a private residence.

A similar meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the month-long Hezbollah war with Israel in 2006 was broadcast on TV and drew months of sharp condemnation from Hezbollah.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company