BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Vice President Joe Biden, the most senior U.S. official to visit Lebanon in 26 years, voiced support for Lebanese sovereignty on Friday and denied seeking to sway an election that may unseat a Western-backed coalition.
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 said he was in Lebanon to show U.S. support for the country’s sovereignty and institutions and added that the Lebanese alone should choose their own leaders. “I do not come here to back any party,” he told reporters after talks with President Michel Suleiman.
The vice president 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.
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 its arch-foe 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.
Biden, who visited Serbia and Kosovo earlier this week, was also due to meet Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri before joining Defence Minister Elias al-Murr for an announcement on U.S. military aid to Lebanon.
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.
U.S. military aid to Lebanon since 2006 has exceeded $400 million. Planned deliveries include artillery, tanks and aerial drones as well as light weapons, ammunition and vehicles.
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. Many analysts predict a small swing toward Hezbollah and its allies in the June 7 election. Opinion polls are not reliable.
Saad al-Hariri led a U.S.- and Saudi-backed coalition to victory in the 2005 election, 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.