US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met the Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, during a surprise visit to Beirut on Sunday ahead of elections that could see militant group Hezbollah emerge as an even stronger political actor.
AFP - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an unannounced visit to Lebanon on Sunday as the country readies for parliamentary elections that could see the militant group Hezbollah and its allies emerge victorious.
Clinton met with President Michel Sleiman during her hours-long trip seen as a bid to bolster the current pro-US majority in parliament ahead of the June 7 vote.
"The people of Lebanon must be able to choose their own representatives in open and fair elections, without the spectre of violence or intimidation, and free of outside influence," Clinton said in a statement to reporters travelling with her.
"Beyond the election, we will continue to support the voices of moderation in Lebanon, and the responsible institutions of the Lebanese state they are working hard to build," she added.
In a show of US impartiality ahead of the election, Sleiman was the only Lebanese official Clinton was scheduled to meet.
She was to have no talks with Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora or parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, although she was to visit the tomb of the latter's father, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in a 2005 bombing widely blamed on Syria.
Public outrage over the assassination forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April that year ending a three-decade presence and Clinton's visit came on the fourth anniversary of the pullout.
Damascus has always denied any involvement in the killing but Washington has been a staunch supporter of an international tribunal which is to try suspects in the bombing.
Clinton's visit, her first to Lebanon since taking office, came amid growing signs the longstanding US-led boycott of Hezbollah is breaking down.
Key US ally Britain last month ended its ban on dealings with the political wing of the group, which fought a devastating 34-day war with Israel in summer 2006.
Washington continues to blacklist Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation but has yet to spell out what policy it will adopt if the group and its allies win the June 7 vote.
"If Hezbollah wins, we will have to look at the composition of the government, and particularly at the programme, to evaluate ... what we are going to do in Lebanon," a senior State Department official travelling with Clinton told AFP.
Hezbollah officials say they have received assurances that the West does not envisage imposing the same sort of boycott as it slapped on the Palestinians when a Hamas-led government took power in March 2006.
"The ambassador of a key European country... informed us that the US will deal with any government, even though they are hoping the (Western-backed parliamentary) majority wins the vote," Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem told AFP earlier this month.
The US gave strong backing to Prime Minister Fuad Siniora when he took power at the head of an anti-Syrian government in the aftermath of Hariri's killing and sharply increased its military aid.
US military assistance has totalled more than 410 million dollars (309 million euros) since 2006 and includes aircraft, tanks, artillery and training.
But to what degree aid would continue under any new government led by a Hezbollah ally remains unclear.
Under the administration of George W. Bush, Washington led a boycott of Damascus -- with Tehran, Hezbollah's main foreign backer.
But under President Barack Obama that boycott has eased and last month Clinton's pointman for Middle East affairs Jeffrey Feltman visited the Syrian capital for talks which he described as "constructive".
US officials have stressed, however, that the new dialogue with Syria will not come at Lebanon's expense.
"One of (Clinton's) primary messages is to reassure President Suleiman and the Lebanese people that our discussions with the Syrians are not coming at the expense of the support for Lebanon's independence, the Lebanese state and institutions," the senior State Department official said.
Date created : 2009-04-26