US slaps sanctions on two Lebanese ex-ministers over Hezbollah


Washington (AFP)

The United States on Tuesday slapped sanctions on two former cabinet ministers in Lebanon over support to Hezbollah as it vowed to isolate the pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim movement amid the country's political tumult.

The Treasury Department targeted former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former transport minister Yusef Fenianos, freezing any assets they hold in the United States and making any financial transactions with them a crime.

But after internal debate, the United States stopped short of targeting any current officials in the strategically sensitive nation torn by economic crisis, political protests and the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut that killed nearly 200 people.

"The United States supports the Lebanese people's call for reform, and we will use all available authorities to promote accountability for Lebanese leaders who have failed their people," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

"Hezbollah depends on Lebanon's corrupt political system for survival," Pompeo said.

"Anyone helping to advance Hezbollah's political or economic interests is further eroding what remains of effective governance and facilitating financing for terrorism."

The action comes as the United States, as well as former colonial power France, press for a new government in Lebanon to push urgent reforms.

But while France regards Hezbollah pragmatically, recognizing its constituency among Shiites in Lebanon, Washington has stepped up its campaign against the movement violently opposed to Israel.

Khalil, part of the Shiite party Amal, served as finance minister from 2014 until April this year when a new technocratic cabinet took over amid street protests in which he was frequently accused of graft.

The Treasury Department said that Khalil, who has also served as health minister, helped direct funds to Hezbollah institutions to evade US sanctions.

Fenianos, according to the Treasury Department, received "hundreds of thousands of dollars" from Hezbollah in return for political favors.

It said he also provided sensitive documents to Hezbollah on a special UN tribunal which found a member of the movement guilty over the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafic Hariri.

- 'Time for different politics' -

Protests in Lebanon have crossed longtime communal lines to demand an end to corruption and better economic management.

Washington's effort was centered squarely on Hezbollah, which emerged in the 1980s fighting Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon and has grown into both a political party and a militia that backs Iran around the region.

Amid outrage over last month's blast, Lebanese have increasingly voiced a willingness to move away from the complex power-sharing system in place since the 1975-1990 civil war that has ensured posts to each community but entrenched individual players.

"It's time for different politics in Lebanon," David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, told reporters by telephone.

"This should be a message both to those who cooperate with Hezbollah, those who enable Hezbollah, but also Lebanon's political leaders who have ignored the responsibility to address the needs of the people and have not fought corruption," he said of the sanctions.

The United States chose not to target prominent Lebanese who have been denounced in recent protests, including central bank governor Riad Salameh.

But Schenker warned of unspecified further action in the "coming weeks and months."

"They take time but, yes, I think everyone should absolutely expect more... sanctions to come."