BEIRUT (AP) – Lebanon’s president will urge U.S. officials to speed up delivery of weapons for the nation’s army during a trip to Washington in which he will meet with President Barack Obama, a Lebanese official said Saturday.
The appeal from President Michel Suleiman, who arrives in Washington Saturday, is at the heart of much of the country’s political turmoil. Lebanon’s government is a shaky coalition of Western-backed factions and Syrian-supported groups led by Hezbollah, a militant group that has its own arsenal with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles.
The United States has long provided military assistance to Lebanon, including $410 million to the military and the police. But America has not handed over any sophisticated arms for fear they could end up in the hands of Hezbollah, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist group.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the military assistance over the past years includes aircraft, tanks, artillery, small boats, infantry weapons, ammunition, Humvees and cargo trucks. It adds that the U.S. will provide the Lebanese Armed Forces with 12 Raven unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft in the coming
months. Hezbollah’s military muscle has generated concern within Lebanon and in Israel, which fought a monthlong war in 2006 with Hezbollah. The U.N. resolution that ended that war called for Hezbollah to disarm, but the group has refused. Hezbollah says it must retain its weapons to fight off any future Israeli threat.
Suleiman will press U.S. officials to deliver the promised military aid, a Lebanese official said Friday. The official, who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak publicly about Suleiman’s agenda, did not give details.
Hisham Jaber, who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations in Beirut, said Suleiman’s appeal is part of his work to develop a national defense strategy that would eventually integrate Hezbollah weapons into the army.
“You cannot speak about a defense strategy and disarming the resistance without the presence of a strong army,” Jaber told The Associated Press.
The trip to Washington was announced earlier this month, before the Lebanese parliament approved a national unity government that will allow Hezbollah to keep its weapons despite strong criticism from pro-Western lawmakers. Lebanon’s government is loath to take strong action against Hezbollah for fear of sparking a crisis. Many fear a renewed outbreak of the sectarian violence seen in 2008, when Hezbollah militants swept through Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut to briefly seize control after the government moved to curb the group’s military communications network. More than 80 people were killed in the violence that followed, pushing the country to the brink of civil war. The White House said earlier this month that Obama and Suleiman will discuss a broad range of issues, including achieving peace in the region.