State Dept.: Aiding LAF serves US

Spokesman cites Iran’s pledge to fill funding gaps.

Lebanon 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Lebanon 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – The State Department is working to allay the concerns of members of Congress who have put a hold on funding to the Lebanese military, following last week’s deadly border incident with Israel, a spokesman said Tuesday.
“We understand that this incident has raised very legitimate questions on the Hill and we will continue to engage leaders on both sides of the aisle to help assuage concerns that exist,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
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However, he defended US military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces as something that’s “in our national interest and contributes to stability in the region.”
He added that the US has “no indications” that its training programs were in any way implicated in the incident.
Crowley also pointed to statements by Iran that it would fill whatever funding gap is left by the US with its own money as an example of the need for the US to keep up its contributions.
“The statements by Iran are expressly the reason why we believe continued support to the Lebanese government and the Lebanese military is in our interest,” he said.
In addition to the recent border skirmish between Lebanon and Israel, House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman cited more general concerns of Hizbullah involvement with the Lebanese army in placing a hold on $100 million in funds slated for 2010.
Crowley responded to the concern by saying that, “Hizbullah is a fact within Lebanese society and much of our effort in supporting the Lebanese military is in fact the very professionalization that we think helps mitigate that risk.”
Though Lebanese officials and Hizbullah have insisted the Shi’ite militant group was not involved in last week’s deadly exchange, some critics in Israel and the US are charging that Hizbullah may have infiltrated the army.
The Lebanese government said the cutoff in aid was “unwarranted” and hurt American- backed efforts to build up its national army. For years, the US has pumped money into Lebanon’s military, hoping a strengthened army would extend state authority across the country and sideline Hizbullah.
“The last thing that the US or any other friend of Lebanon should do is to weaken the effort to build up our national army,” said Mohamed Chatah, an adviser to Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
He added that government officials were contacting Washington “to make sure that there is a better and fuller understanding of the situation in Lebanon and along the border.”
The clashes began after an Israeli soldier tried to remove a tree along the border, something the military has done in the past to improve its sightlines into Lebanon. Both sides claimed the tree was in their territory; the United Nations later determined it was on the Israeli side.
The clash highlighted the tensions in the area, where Israeli and Lebanese soldiers patrol within shouting distance of each other, and underlined how easily the situation could re-ignite along the frontier where Israel and Hizbullah fought a war four years ago.