BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah’s electoral victory in south Lebanon gives the militant group more muscle to strongly rebuff international calls to lay down its weapons and become a purely political party.
The United States and Israel responded with concern to results from Sunday’s voting. White House press secretary Scott McClellan noted Monday the U.S. focus had been on making sure Lebanese elections were free, but reiterated that Hezbollah must be disarmed.
“Hezbollah, as you are well aware, is a terrorist organization,” he said in the first U.S. response to the voting.
The strong endorsement at home, however, gave Hezbollah what it sought: a popular mandate that flies in the face of U.S. and U.N. demands for it to disarm.
“Because the resistance is a natural result of Israel’s aggression and its wars and massacres in Lebanon, it was not strange for the south to declare frankly before international observers that it belongs to the resistance,” said Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite Amal movement, which shared the Hezbollah ticket.
Annan sends envoy to Syris
Also Monday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan instructed a top U.N. envoy to leave quickly for Syria to see President Bashar Al-Assad about Lebanon, but U.N. officials refused to disclose the reason for his urgent mission.
The Hezbollah-Amal alliance won all 17 of the contested seats by a wide margin, Interior Minister Hassan Sabei said. The ticket also took six unchallenged seats.
Sunday’s vote increased Hezbollah’s legislators in south Lebanon from four to five. The group also won a seat in Beirut last week in the first round of the staggered elections, which continue over four Sundays until June 19.
Sunday’s widely expected win came on the 23rd anniversary of Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon, which triggered the birth of Hezbollah. The group spearheaded a guerrilla war against Israeli occupation forces until they withdrew in May 2000.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed concern. “If Hezbollah was only a political party, we in Israel wouldn’t be as concerned as we are,” ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “While we don’t like ballots for Hezbollah, it’s the organization’s bullets that really concern us.”
Hezbollah occasionally fires rockets on Israeli positions in the disputed Chebaa Farms, a border area occupied by Israel during the 1967 Mideast war. Hezbollah considers the territory Lebanese while the United Nations says it belongs to Syria.
Slight edge to pro-Syrian lawmakers
Sunday’s results give a slight political edge to those considered allies of Syria, which was forced to withdraw in April after nearly two decades of military and political control over its smaller neighbor.
The pro-Syrians now hold 23 seats, compared to 19 by the opposition that had demanded Syria’s withdrawal.
Hezbollah, backed by both Syria and Iran, had nine seats nationwide in the outgoing 128-member legislature.
The United States, Canada and Israel have listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. While the European Union has not listed the group as terrorist, it has expressed concerns about the group and called for its disarmament in line with last year’s Security Council Resolution 1559.
Lebanese back Hezbollah on arms
Hezbollah has refused to disarm. It has been backed on this point by the Lebanese government, which argues that Hezbollah is legitimately resisting Israel’s alleged occupation of a parcel of territory on the south Lebanon border.
Last month, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed to fight anyone who tries to take away the group’s weapons, which include more than 12,000 rockets capable of hitting northern Israel.
The elections are the first national polls to be conducted since Syria withdrew all its troops from Lebanon in April after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri in a massive bombing. The anti-Syrian opposition hopes the elections will end Damascus’ control of the legislature.
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