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(photo credit: Channel 1 [file])
Hizbullah on Friday denounced a senior Pentagon official's call for a US "strategic partnership" with Lebanon's army, saying American attempts to boost military ties were a ploy for domination and could turn the country into another Iraq.
Washington has dramatically increased military aid to Lebanon's pro-Western government over the past year. On Thursday, Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, said the US wants to make military ties even closer, with a "strategic partnership" to strengthen the country's forces.
Edelman said in an interview with Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television that the building up of the military would mean the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group Hizbullah would have no excuse to bear arms.
He comments came on the same day that a Lebanese newspaper reported that Washington is proposing a treaty with Lebanon that would make it a strategic partner and lead to the creation of American bases.
The Lebanese government and the US ambassador in Beirut denied the report in the opposition-leaning As-Safir newspaper, and Edelman made no mention of bases in his comments.
The comments and the newspaper report brought quick condemnation from Hizbullah, which is an ally of Syria and Iran and leads Lebanon's political opposition to the anti-Syrian government. The opposition, which is locked in a power struggle with the government, already accuses Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of being too close to the United States.
In a statement Friday, Hizbullah said the American efforts were "part of a comprehensive plan to link Lebanon with the American project for the region ... under deceitful banners such as strategic partnership," it said.
Hizbullah, which Washington accuses of being a terrorist organization, accused the United States of "interference" in Lebanese affairs, saying the American plans "and the dangers it encompass could turn the country into another Iraq."
It did not elaborate. Some in Lebanon have expressed fears that a foreign military presence could attract al-Qaida and other militants, as has happened in Iraq.
Syria, meanwhile, accused the United States of threatening Lebanon's stability with its backing of the government in the country's political turmoil. In a letter sent to the United Nations on Thursday, it said US interference "has so far deepened divisions" by "clearly and openly siding with one Lebanese side after the other."
The United States - and anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon - accuse Damascus of fueling Lebanon's instability with its backing of Hizbullah, and say Syria is trying to restore the political domination it held over Lebanon for nearly 30 years until 2005.
The opposition, in turn, accuses Saniora's government - which came to power after the end of Syrian rule - of putting Lebanon in the US camp. The opposition has tried for months to remove his government and the two sides are in a dangerous deadlock over the choice of the country's next president.
After last year's war between Hizbullah and Israel, the United States sharply increased its military assistance to Lebanon to US$270 million in 2007 - more than five times the amount provided a year ago - in a show of support to Saniora.
The military in Lebanon has long been weak, numbering 56,000 personnel, with about 220 battle tanks, no effective air power and no air defense system. Hizbullah guerrillas are widely considered a stronger, more experienced force, and they were able to fight Lebanon's military to a standstill last year.
Since the battle with Israel, Lebanese forces and UN peacekeepers have deployed in the south - Hizbullah's stronghold - in part with a mandate to prevent new arms flows to the guerrillas. But they have not taken steps to disarm Hizbullah.
Asked whether helping the Lebanese army aimed at eventually taking on Hizbullah, Edelman said that as the army strengthens its capabilities "there will be less excuse for other armed groups to continue to bear arms."