(AFP) BEIRUT, Lebanon — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday urged Lebanon to pick a side as he visited the country on a regional tour to build a united front against Iran.
He especially expressed concern over the role of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite movement that is targeted by US sanctions but holds three cabinet posts in Lebanon.
Pompeo flew in from Israel a day after he became the first high-ranking American official to visit the Western Wall with an Israeli prime minister.
His visit also came just hours after US President Donald Trump said Washington should recognize Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, breaking with the policy of successive administrations as well as UN Security Council resolutions.
“Lebanon and the Lebanese people face a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future,” he said during a joint news conference with his Lebanese counterpart.
“The US will continue to use all peaceful means, everything at our disposal to choke off the financing, the smuggling the criminal network and the misuse of government positions and influence,” by Hezbollah, he said.
“We will not hesitate to call out those who actively and passively support those activities.”
Pompeo and Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil stood side by side at the new conference but their statements were contradictory.
And a question and answer session with the media was cancelled “at the behest of the Americans,” a Lebanese foreign ministry official said.
Bassil he held “constructive and positive talks” with Pompeo but stressed that their were differences of perspective with regards to Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah is a Lebanese party, not a terrorist group, and it enjoys a wide popular base,” Bassil said.
“We don’t want our ties with America to be affected and we want to work together to solve problems, including the issue with Hezbollah,” he said, stressing that Lebanon’s stability is of mutual interest to both states.
In an earlier meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Pompeo conveyed his worry over Hezbollah.
He stressed “the US government’s strong concerns over the role of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon and the region and the risks this poses to Lebanon’s security, stability, and prosperity,” US deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said.
The Iran-backed group, considered a terror organization by the US and Israel, has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. Its battle-hardened cadres fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006, and have fought alongside President Bashar Assad’s army since the early days of the Syrian civil war, securing a string of hard-won victories.
Pompeo also met parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who is himself a Shiite, and warned of the group’s “destabilizing activities” in the region.
Pompeo and Berri also discussed “the need to maintain calm along the boundary between Lebanon and Israel”, Palladino said.
Lebanon and its southern neighbor Israel are still technically at war, even after Israeli troops withdrew from the south of the country in 2000.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating month-long war in 2006, and skirmishes still erupt along a UN-patrolled demarcation line.
Last December, the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield to find tunnels that it says Hezbollah terrorist group had dug into northern Israel from towns in southern Lebanon.
Pompeo and Prime Minister Saad Hariri discussed “the importance of the US-Lebanese security partnership and the need for continued support for Lebanon’s legitimate state security institutions, particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces,” Palladino said.
Pompeo “commended the Lebanese people for hosting more than one million Syrian refugees.”
In a meeting with Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan, Pompeo “discussed regional and internal security challenges facing Lebanon and how the United States can help support the interior ministry’s efforts.”
Hassan became the first woman interior minister in Lebanon and the Middle East in a cabinet line-up unveiled in late January following an eight-month delay.
The United States has branded Hezbollah, the only group in Lebanon that has not disarmed since its 1975-1990 civil war, a “terrorist” organisation and targeted it with tough sanctions.
Hezbollah’s cleric Ali Damush questioned the timing and purpose of Pompeo’s visit during his Friday sermon.
“What are the Lebanese expecting from America and its foreign minister after these two announcements that are totally biased in favor of Israel, except for inciting (Hezbollah) and turning Lebanese against each other?”