WASHINGTON – The US Congress is blocking funding to the Lebanese military following a cross-border shooting attack on Israeli soldiers last week amidst concern it is cooperating with Hizbullah.

“This incident was tragic and entirely avoidable,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) said Monday. “US assistance is intended to enhance our safety and that of our allies.”

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Lowey chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that authorizes such funds.

The $100 million in Lebanese military assistance approved for 2010 has yet to be disbursed, giving her a window to put the funding on hold for the immediate future.

Lowey is looking to find out more about the nature of what she termed an “outrageous incident,” as well as watching how Lebanon responds in the wake of the violence.

“These holds are typically dependent on the actions and rhetoric coming out of the relevant nations,” a Democratic aide noted.

Similarly, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-California) also applied a hold, citing more general concerns about “reported Hizbullah influence on the Lebanese Armed Forces.”

Congressman calls for information on Hizbullah's role in LAF

Berman entered his hold the day before the deadly incident, he said Monday, which only confirmed his reservations.

His office also wants more information on Hizbullah’s role in the LAF, how diligently US weapons are kept track of and how well the LAF cooperates with UNIFIL.

“Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hizbullah influence on the LAF – and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,” Berman said.

Last Tuesday, Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers shot at Israeli officers while brush was being cleared along the northern border; one officer was killed and another seriously wounded. The IDF returned fire, killing at least two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist.

A State Department official said the US was still trying to ascertain the facts of the incident, including whether there was any truth behind reports that the LAF troops were using American-supplied weapons.

“We consistently review all of our security assistance programs to all receiving countries,” the official said. “Ultimately, we continue to believe that our support to the LAF and ISF [Internal Security Forces] will contribute toward improving regional security.”

He added that the funding was “part of an international effort to help strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state. We have provided support to Lebanon to strengthen the ability of the Lebanese government to exercise its own sovereignty.”

Additional $100 m. was requested before incident occured

LAF funding approved for 2009 and already in the pipeline is being distributed by the US as scheduled. Another $100 million had already been requested by the Obama administration for 2011 and considered by Lowey’s subcommittee before the incident occurred.

That money could also be affected when Congress reconvenes from its summer recess in September.

On Monday, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), the House minority whip, called for 2011’s funding to be blocked until the incident was investigated and it was clear that the Lebanese military wasn’t collaborating with Hizbullah.

“The LAF’s unprovoked attack on the Israeli defense forces in undisputed Israeli territory demands a sweeping reassessment of how we distribute our foreign aid,” Cantor declared in a statement.

“The purpose of the assistance was to build up a Lebanese fighting force that would serve as a check on the growing power of the radical Islamist Hizbullah movement,” he noted, referring to hundreds of millions of dollars the US has already spent training and equipping the LAF in recent years.

“For the past few years, the US and the international community looked the other way as the lines between Hizbullah and the Lebanese military and government became blurred,” he charged. “But the days of ignoring the LAF’s provocations against Israel and protection of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon are over.”

Separately, the US is also looking to boost the military capabilities of Saudi Arabia, with a reported $30 billion arms deal in the works.

The Saudis will be getting the advanced F-15 fighter, although the jet will not have longrange weapons or other systems that Israel has been wary about, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was recently in Washington for talks with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials, in which this issue was understood to have figured prominently.

The US has also taken steps to boost Israeli capabilities as part of maintaining its qualitative military edge (QME), a stated American priority.

Part of the process includes keeping Israel apprised of arms sales to its enemies and giving Jerusalem opportunities to register objections, even if the sales go ahead.

“We have a good dialogue with the United States, and we’re discussing how to maintain Israel’s QME,” said an Israeli official. “In that framework these and other issues can be brought up.”