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Clinton vows support for Lebanon

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed on Sunday that the United States would never sell out Lebanon in any deal with Syria and she urged the Lebanese to hold an "open and fair" election in June.
LEBANON-US-DIPLOMACY
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signs a guestbook as she visits the tomb of slain former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri (pictured) in Beirut on Sunday.Joseph Barrak / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed on Sunday that the United States would never sell out Lebanon in any deal with Syria and she urged the Lebanese to hold an "open and fair" election in June.

"There is nothing that we would do in any way that would undermine Lebanon's sovereignty," Clinton told reporters after talks with President Michel Suleiman in Beirut. "The United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people.

"You (Lebanese) have been through too much and it is only right that you are given a chance to make your own decisions."

Clinton's three-hour visit to Lebanon came six weeks before Lebanese vote in a general election pitting a Western-backed coalition against an alliance grouping Hezbollah and its allies and backed by Syria and Iran.

"We believe strongly that the people of Lebanon must be able to choose their own representatives in open and fair elections, without the specter of violence or intimidation, and certainly free of outside interference," she said.

"We will continue to support the voices of moderation in Lebanon, and the responsible institutions of the Lebanese state they are working hard to build."

The top U.S. diplomat would not speculate on the outcome of the election but she said: "Moderation is important in the affairs of states," she said.

Washington has recently begun to engage Syria and Iran after years of very tense relations.

Syria and Iran are the main backers of Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, a political and guerrilla group which fought a war against Israel in 2006 and which has representatives in the Lebanese government and parliament.

The United States and Arab ally Saudi Arabia support Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the anti-Syrian Sunni-led coalition that holds a majority in parliament. No side holds a clear lead in polls and June's election is expected to be a very tight race. ‘

‘Interference’
Hezbollah criticized Clinton's visit as interference in Lebanese affairs. "The policy of the United States is one of interference," the group's spokesman Ibrahim al-Mousawi told Hezbollah's al-Manar TV.

"This interference is not in the interest of the countries they interfere in but to serve the American interests in the region."

Fears the election could spark large-scale sectarian violence have subsided with engagement between Syria and Saudi Arabia as well as Washington's efforts with Damascus and Tehran.

On its way from the airport, Clinton's motorcade passed a string of mainly yellow Hezbollah election campaign posters with the group's emblem showing a hand carrying an assault rifle.

Clinton's visit coincided with the fourth anniversary of the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

U.S.-led international pressure and domestic protests forced Syria to end 29 years of military presence in Lebanon after the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

Clinton backed a special court set up by the United Nations Security Council to try suspects in the Hariri killing.

Clinton visited Hariri's grave in downtown Beirut and met Hariri's son and political heir Saad al-Hariri who leads the majority coalition.

While U.S. officials were at pains to avoid appearing to interfere in the elections, her decision to visit the grave and see Saad indicated her preferences in the election.

"Our ongoing support for the Lebanese Armed Forces remains a pillar of our bilateral cooperation," Clinton said after her talks with Suleiman.

The senior State Department official said this should not be taken as a guarantee that the United States would continue the military assistance that it has provided in the past.

The Obama administration would have to take a look at the composition of the next Lebanese government and make decisions about its aid in that light, the official said.

The majority coalition wants Hezbollah to disband its powerful guerrilla army and to hand its weapons to the Lebanese army. The group says it needs it arms to defend Lebanon against Israel. 

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