Vice President Joe Biden came to Lebanon on Friday to reinforce U.S. support for the government ahead of key parliamentary elections that could see a pro-Western majority ousted by a coalition led by the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
Biden is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years and the second from the Obama administration in about a month, following in the footsteps of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The attention underscores Washington's concerns about a possible win by Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.
The White House said Biden's visit was meant "to reinforce the United States' support for an independent and sovereign Lebanon."
With the election about two weeks away, this deeply divided nation is in the throes of an increasingly abrasive election campaign that has split voters into two main camps: a pro-Western one comprising mainly Sunnis who look to America, France and moderate Sunni Arab allies and another largely dominated by Shiites and backed by U.S. foes Iran and Syria.
Hezbollah, which is highly critical of U.S. Mideast policy and has a strong anti-Israeli agenda, is looking to strengthen its political hold beyond the veto power it and allies currently have in the government. The Shiite group has only 14 seats in the 128-seat parliament, but negotiated this power after it displayed force a year ago when its gunmen overran Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut.
The coalition dominated by the heavily armed group stands a good chance of winning, which could increase the influence of its sponsors Iran and Syria in the region.
Warning aimed at Hezbollah
U.S. officials have said they will review assistance to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, a warning clearly aimed at Hezbollah and its allies competing in the June 7 elections.
The U.S. has provided Lebanon with more than a billion dollars in assistance since 2006, including $410 million to the military and the police. The White House said Biden will announce further assistance for the Lebanese military while in the country.
Hezbollah has criticized Biden's visit, describing it as part of a pattern of interference in the Lebanese elections.
Biden's visit caps a transformation in American policy toward Lebanon that began four years ago after more than two decades of largely steering away from a country that has been viewed as a quagmire. Pro-Iranian militants targeted Americans with bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s during the civil war, leading to a 12-year U.S. ban on Americans traveling to the country that was lifted in 1997.
Biden flew into Beirut airport coming from Kosovo, closing a three-day tour of the southeastern European region that also took him to Bosnia and Serbia. Lebanese military helicopters hovered over the Lebanese capital to provide security as a motorcade of about dozen cars sped through the city center on its way to the presidential palace in the suburban hills of Baabda.
During the visit scheduled to last a few hours, Biden met with President Michel Suleiman, a neutral former army commander elected a year ago by consensus after a nearly two-year political crisis that almost drove the country into another conflict like the 1975-90 civil war.
Biden's visit is seen here as a boost for the standing of the Lebanese president and the military. Both could play a pivotal role in stabilizing the country after the elections and be partners the United States could continue to work with should the Hezbollah-led coalition wins.
Biden will also meet the pro-Western prime minister and the speaker of parliament, who is aligned with Hezbollah, the White House said. The vice president will end his visit with a ceremony at the airport with Lebanon's defense minister.