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US Says Aid Programs Could Reduce Hezbollah Appeal in Lebanon

A Bush administration official says democratic reform in Lebanon could strengthen Hezbollah's political influence in the country. But the official told a Senate panel Wednesday that U.S. aid programs for Lebanon could help reduce the appeal of the militant group, which the United States says is a terrorist organization.

In an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield acknowledged that the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia could benefit from efforts to bolster democracy in Lebanon. Mr. Satterfield spoke a day after returning from Lebanon, where he underscored U.S. appeals to Syria to withdraw its troops from the country.

"In view of potential developments on the ground which open the scope for true, free and fair elections, the possibility does exist that Hezbollah would be able to attain more parliamentary seats than it otherwise would have been able to," he said.

The United States has designated Hezbollah a terrorist group because it funds suicide bombings in Israel. But in Lebanon, the organization is popular because it provides social services.

Ambassador Satterfield says Hezbollah is doing what the Lebanese government has failed to do: offer basic services to the people. He blames corruption for the government's inability to provide such services. He says that a more efficient government, with support from U.S. aid programs, would help reduce Hezbollah's appeal.

"We believe that if civil society is supported, if efforts against corruption are supported and advanced, and we do have specific assistance programs that have been focused on anti-corruption efforts, that Hezbollah's appeal can be reduced," he said.

Ambassador Satterfield also expressed concerns over Russia's plans to sell arms to Syria. He said it appears Russia has "a desire to differentiate itself" in its relationship with the Arab world from the United States.