US will accept disarmed Hizbollah
THE Bush administration would accept a political role for the Lebanese group Hizbollah if it disarmed, US officials said today, a stance they said was not new but reflected recognition of the political clout of the militant Shiite Muslim organisation.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carefully avoided the stock US phrase that Hizbollah is a terrorist organisation in remarks to reporters, two days after Hizbollah showed its political power by drawing hundreds of thousands of people to central Beirut for a pro-Syria rally.
But she insisted that “the American view of Hizbollah has not changed” and other US officials were quick to call the group a terrorist organisation.
Ms Rice said US policy was focused on getting Syria to pull its 14,000 troops and its intelligence personnel from Lebanon so the country can have parliamentary elections in May without outside interference.
“We’re going to do one thing at a time. Lebanon is a very complex place with a lot of complex political factors but those cannot begin to come into harmony until you have Syrian forces out and we see what the real balance of forces and the real balance of interests in Lebanon look like,” she said.
Hizbollah is funded and armed by Iran and receives support from Syria. It began as an anti-Israel militia but is now also a political party with deputies in the Lebanese parliament and a network of charities.
“Obviously we’d like to see them disarmed as UN Security Council Resolution 1559 requires. Once disarmed they could undertake any political role in Lebanon that they can win democratically at the polls. This doesn’t constitute any change in the US position,” a senior Bush administration official said.
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said there was a recognition among US officials of Hizbollah’s political power but denied any policy change.
“We do have to live in the real world and unfortunately in that world people we really don’t like do sometimes get into elected office. Hizbollah - just like Hamas in the Palestinian territories - is a political force. But just because we recognise - as we always have - that reality does not mean we have changed our policy toward them,” the official said.
US officials denied a New York Times report that the administration had made a sharp policy shift and was grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese political mainstream.
“The report suggests that our view has changed on Hizbollah. It has not,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Hizbollah is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organisations and has been singled out by President George W. Bush and others as one of the biggest obstacles to peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians by sponsoring attacks against Israel.
The Times report drew criticism from a number of lawmakers reminded of the Hizbollah role in the 1983 Beirut bombing in which more than 200 US Marines were killed.
“The plain truth is that Hizbollah is an armed terrorist militia, responsible for hundreds of murders, including many Americans,” said Jane Harman, ranking Democrat of the House of Representatives intelligence committee. Mr Bush told EU leaders last month it was not in the best interest of the United States or Europe for Iran to fund “terrorist organisations like Hizbollah, which has the desire to stop the Middle East peace process from going forward”.