Biden links U.S. aid to Lebanon vote outcome

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Friday Washington would assess its aid to Lebanon depending on who won next month's election, but denied taking sides in a vote pitching a Western-backed coalition against Hezbollah.

Lebanese vote on June 7 in a poll that pits an alliance including Hezbollah -- an Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shi'ite group that Washington classifies as terrorist -- against an anti-Syrian coalition now holding a majority in parliament.

Biden, the most senior U.S. official to visit Lebanon in 26 years, said the United States was committed to comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including Lebanon.

"I urge those who would think about standing with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away from the spoilers," Biden added in a veiled reference to Hezbollah, which opposes U.S. efforts to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Biden said he had come to show U.S. support for Lebanon's sovereignty, pledging that it would not be traded away.

"I do not come here to back any party," he said after talks with President Michel Suleiman, but added that future U.S. aid to Lebanon would depend on the nature of the next government.

"We will evaluate the shape of our assistance programme based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates," Biden declared.

Hezbollah criticised Biden's visit, which followed one by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April, as meddling in Lebanon, and denounced U.S. support for Israel.

"The high American interest in Lebanon raises strong suspicion as to the real reason behind it, especially since it has become a clear and detailed intervention in Lebanese affairs," Hezbollah said in a statement.


After meeting Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a pro-Syrian ally of Hezbollah, Biden held talks with Saad al-Hariri and other leaders of a Western-backed coalition hoping to keep parliamentary majority in the election.

Hariri's bloc won the 2005 poll, held soon after an outcry over the assassination of his statesman father Rafik al-Hariri forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

Biden later joined Defence Minister Elias al-Murr at Beirut airport for a display of U.S. military equipment, including tanks, given to Lebanon in the past few years.

"We believe it's critical that you be able to do your mission and protect the citizens and state of Lebanon -- one army, one police power, one capability controlling your whole country," Biden told his host.

He said the United States was committed to meeting the army's needs and had allocated more than $500 million to training and equipping Lebanese security forces since 2005.

Many analysts predict gains for Hezbollah and its allies, who include Christian leader Michel Aoun, in a tight vote which may lead to the formation of another national unity government.

Lebanese authorities closed many Beirut streets to ensure security for Biden's one-day visit. Helicopters clattered overhead and police sirens wailed across the capital.

Since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, the United States has expanded military assistance to Lebanon to strengthen its armed forces as a counterweight to Hezbollah, the only Lebanese faction to remain armed after the 1975-1990 civil war.

Biden's visit was the first by an American vice president to Lebanon since 1983, the year when Shi'ite suicide bombers attacked the U.S. embassy and Marine headquarters, and the most senior U.S. visit since that time, a U.S. embassy official said.

Hezbollah, founded to fight Israel's occupation of Lebanon after a 1982 invasion, has since entered domestic politics to secure legitimacy as an armed resistance group, saying its weapons are needed to defend Lebanon from Israel.

Biden, without mentioning Hezbollah, said the United States upheld the principle that "the Lebanese state, accountable to the Lebanese people, is the defender of Lebanese freedom."

Article Published: 22/05/2009