US Vice President Joe Biden is in Beirut ahead of a key election that could see Hezbollah and its allies seize a majority in parliament. Biden said that the US would assess future aid to Lebanon based on the new government's policies.
AFP - US Vice President Joe Biden said on Friday that Washington will review its aid to Lebanon based on the outcome of a tightly contested legislative election that the Islamist group Hezbollah could win.
"The US will evaluate the shape of its assistance programme 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.
He said Washington was committed to comprehensive peace in the Middle East and vowed that Lebanon's sovereignty "will not be traded away".
His trip to Beirut was not aimed at influencing the outcome of the June 7 vote, which pits the current US-backed majority in parliament against a Hezbollah-led alliance supported by Iran and Syria, insisted Biden.
"I did not come here to back any institution or political party," he said. "The shape and composition of Lebanon's government is for the Lebanese people to decide."
But in an apparent swipe at Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Washington, Biden warned against parties who oppose peace in the region.
"I urge those who think about standing with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away from the spoilers," he said.
Hezbollah blasted Biden's visit as clear proof that Washington was meddling in Lebanese affairs.
"We call on all Lebanese, regardless of their political views, to rise up against such meddling which represents a flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty," Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah told AFP.
Biden also met with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah, as well as several members of the pro-Western faction in parliament.
He wrapped up his seven-hour visit at Beirut airport, standing before an array of military equipment, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters that he said are part of more than half a billion dollars in US military assistance to Lebanon since 2005.
"We believe it's crucial that you be able to do your mission to defend the state and citizens of Lebanon," Biden said, standing next to Defence Minister Elias Murr.
"One army, one armed group, one police power, one capability to control your own country," he added, in an apparent swipe at Hezbollah, the only armed Lebanese faction and arguably one of the most powerful non-state actors in the Middle East.
Biden and Murr noted that the United States had committed to provide further training and assistance to the Lebanese armed forces over the next five years.
The visit came on the heels of a similar trip by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April, during which she also urged free and fair elections on June 7.
Hezbollah stands a good chance of winning the vote along with its allies.
Washington has repeatedly said it will have no dealings with the militant group, which fought a devastating summer war with Israel in 2006.
But Hezbollah officials say they have received assurances that the West does not envisage imposing a boycott like the one it slapped on Hamas when the Islamic movement won the Palestinian parliamentary election in January 2006.
US President Barack Obama's administration has been making efforts to repair its relationship with the Muslim world, including Syria and Iran.
But it has sought to reassure its allies in Beirut that any rapprochement with Damascus, which dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades, would not be at their expense.
Biden is the first sitting US vice president to visit Lebanon since George Bush Senior travelled to Beirut in 1983 in the aftermath of the bombing of the US marine barracks that killed 241 troops.
A splinter group backed by Hezbollah, then an obscure guerrilla organisation, was accused of being behind the bombing.
Date created : 2009-05-23