Hillary Clinton reassures Lebanese in surprise visit

The US Secretary of State dropped into Beirut Sunday to bolster US allies against Hezbollah supporters ahead of close parliamentary elections.

Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton dropped into Beirut Sunday for a surprise visit intended to rally Washington’s allies in Lebanon ahead of a knife-edge parliamentary election in June.

On her first visit to Lebanon, Ms. Clinton said the US would “continue to support the voices of moderation in Lebanon and the responsible institutions of the Lebanese state that they are working to build.”

Lebanon goes to the polls on June 7 for what is likely to be a close race between the US-backed March 14 parliamentary block, which forms the backbone of the national unity government, and the Syrian-supported opposition which is led by the militant Shiite group, Hezbollah. Victory or defeat could be decided by as few as five seats either way in the 128-seat parliament.

Lately, the March 14 block has been showing some signs of disarray amid internal electoral squabbling and the decisions of some candidates to step down. That has boosted the prospect of Hezbollah and its allies winning the elections and dominating the next government, which almost certainly will be another coalition administration.

After meeting with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman in Beirut, Clinton told reporters that the US hoped that “the election will be free of intimidation and outside interference, and that the results of the election will continue a moderate, positive direction that will benefit all the people of Lebanon.”
Clinton said that the US would work with the next government, regardless of the outcome of the elections and pledged continued support to the Lebanese Army. The US has contributed $410 million in military and security assistance since 2006. That assistance to the Army and security forces is expected to continue even if Hezbollah and its allies win the elections.

The Obama administration is mulling a cautious re-engagement with Syria to end several years of strained ties.

Syria disengaged from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, an act that was widely blamed on Damascus.

Syria continues to exert a powerful influence in Lebanon through its allies. Some anti-Syrian Lebanese fear that the US may turn a blind eye to more overt Syrian control over Lebanon if a US-Syrian re-engagement bears fruit. But Clinton insisted US support for Lebanon would not end if a rapprochement is struck between Washington and Damascus.

“There is nothing that we will do in any way that would undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” Clinton said. “We don’t have a right to do that, and we don’t believe that would be the right thing to do. So, I want to assure any Lebanese citizens, that the United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people.”

She also confirmed Washington’s continued backing for the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s murder, adding that it cannot be used as a “bargaining chip” to win concessions from Syria, the chief suspect.

On Monday, the tribunal will decide the immediate fate of four Lebanese generals who headed security departments at the time of Hariri’s death when Syria dominated Lebanon. The four have been held in prison without charge since 2005.

Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, has been given until Monday to make his case whether the generals should remain behind bars, freed on bail, or released without charge.

The result will provide the first clear indication in over three years where the criminal investigation is headed. If the generals are charged, it will strengthen suspicions that the Syrian regime was behind Hariri’s murder. On the other hand, if they are released, it will suggest that the four-year United Nations probe has failed to find sufficient evidence for convictions, casting into doubt the durability of the tribunal itself.

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