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(photo credit: AP)
Washington will provide Lebanon with fighter jets, helicopters, tanks and unmanned aerial vehicles, Israel Radio reported Saturday, following the meeting between Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr and US Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden said Friday that future US aid to Lebanon depends on the outcome of upcoming elections, a warning aimed at Iranian-backed Hizbullah as it tries to oust the pro-Western faction that dominates government.
Confident its alliance will win, Hizbullah criticized Biden's visit as a US attempt to influence the June 7 vote and held a mass rally to show its popular support.
Biden is the highest-level US official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years and the attention shows American concern that the vote could shift power firmly into the hands of Hizbullah.
US officials have said before they will review aid to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, apparently meaning military aid.
"The election of leaders committed to the rule of law and economic reform opens the door to lasting growth and prosperity as it will here in Lebanon," Biden said. The US "will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates."
The US considers Hizbullah a terrorist group and Biden's one-day visit was clearly timed to bolster the Western-leaning faction led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora ahead of the vote. He expressed strong support for the government.
"I assure you we stand with you to guarantee a sovereign, secure Lebanon, with strong institutions," he said after the meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
With the election about two weeks away, Lebanon is in the throes of an increasingly abrasive campaign that has split voters into two main camps. One made up mainly of Sunnis favors close ties to America, France and moderate Sunni Arab countries while the other is dominated by Shiites and backed by US foes Iran and Syria.
Biden said the US did not want to interfere in the elections and tried to steer clear of the political divisions by meeting the neutral president, Saniora and Hizbullah-allied parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
The US vice president said the Lebanese stand to benefit from Arab-Israeli peace and called for the isolation of opponents of the process.
"Lebanon has suffered terribly from war and we have a real opportunity now ... for peace," he said after talks with the president. "So I urge those who think about standing with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away from the spoilers."
Biden's visit caps a transformation in American policy toward Lebanon. It began four years ago after more than two decades of steering clear of the country long viewed as a quagmire. Pro-Iranian militants targeted Americans with bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s during the civil war and more than 250 Americans were killed. That led to a 12-year US ban on citizens traveling to the country that was lifted in 1997.
But by stepping into Lebanon's political fray, the United States risks deepening the rift between rival factions. If it does not win, an embittered Hizbullah could take a harder line against its opponents.
While the US vice president was still in Beirut, Hizbullah flexed its muscle by holding a mass rally in the southern city of Nabatiya to mark the 2000 departure of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. Tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters listened to leader Hassan Nasrallah's video address on a giant TV screen. He spoke from his hiding place in south Beirut.
Hizbullah said the visits by Biden and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a month ago raised "strong suspicion and amounted to a clear and detailed interference in Lebanon's affairs."
The Shiite group has only 14 seats in the 128-seat parliament, but got the veto power after a show of force a year ago when its gunmen overran Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut. Hizbullah and its allies have a total of 58 seats, while the Western-backed majority holds 70.
The coalition dominated by the heavily armed Hizbullah stands a good chance of winning, which could increase the influence of its sponsors Iran and Syria in the region. Israel and US Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are concerned about the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially through the militant groups Teheran backs such as Hizbullah and Hamas in Gaza.
The US has provided Lebanon with more than a billion dollars in assistance since 2006, including $410 million to the military and the police. At the airport before leaving, Biden said the United States was "committed to meeting your army's needs." He reviewed a display of the military hardware the US has provided to Lebanon including a tank, a helicopter and an armored carrier.
US support for Lebanon shot up after the Hariri assassination under the former Bush administration, which had isolated Syria.
Lebanon, prompting recent reassurances from US officials that they will not sell out Lebanon in any dialogue with Syria.
The last US vice president to visit Lebanon was George H.W. Bush under President Ronald Reagan. He came in October 1983, days after a massive suicide truck bombing destroyed the US Marine base at Beirut airport and killed more than 240.