The Bush administration Tuesday sharply criticized Iran and Syria for claiming victory for Hezbollah in the Lebanon conflict. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres meanwhile, who met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said Hezbollah may have lost half of its mainline fighting force.
The Bush administration says that despite its claims of victory, the conflict was a strategic setback for Hezbollah as well for its two main international sponsors. And the State Department's chief Middle East policy expert is taking the leaders of both Iran and Syria to task for comments he says aim to take political advantage of a regional tragedy.
Speaking at Washington's Foreign Press Center, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch lashed out at comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejahd and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad glorifying Hezbollah, which started the conflict July 12 with a kidnap raid into Israel.
Welch said it is a sad situation when leaders of other countries can, as he put it, stand on the rubble of Lebanon in the aftermath of the conflict and proclaim victory for their vision of the Middle East:
"I find it terrible that the president of Iran, who seeks to have his nation respected in the international community should take advantage of this tragedy in the manner he is doing," said David Welch. "As for the president of Syria, you can make your own judgment about the quality of his discourse throughout this crisis and his recent speech. It's once again a signal of how little they add to the solution of these conflicts, how instead they're trying to pile on popular emotion and anger at a time of tragedy for their own selfish advantage."
Both the Syrian and Iranian presidents said Tuesday the war had been a victory for Hezbollah and a defeat U.S. policy aims in the region.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed the remarks as blustering, and said once last Friday's U.N. Security Council resolution is implemented, Hezbollah will no longer be a state-within-a-state with the ability to roam free along the Israeli border.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who met privately with Secretary of State Rice, told reporters here that recent rhetoric notwithstanding, most Arab countries are pleased about the curbs being put on Hezbollah, which he depicted as an Iranian foreign legion in the Middle East:
"This is in fact today an Iranian armed division, by training, by weapons, by command, by finance," said Shimon Peres. "We estimate that Iran provides the Hezbollah with over $100 million a year. They're a paid Iranian force, no matter what the names. Most of the weapons came from Iran, with Iranian instructors in Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters are being trained, part of them, in Iran. So we look upon it as a foreign legion."
Peres said Israel estimates that half of Hezbollah's core fighting force of about 2,500 guerrillas were killed or wounded in the 34-day conflict.
A senior official traveling with Peres said Israel believes Iran and Syria may already be trying to re-supply Hezbollah, and that it is looking to the international community to enforce the arms ban included in last week's U.N. resolution.
State Department Spokesman McCormack said the Bush administration's immediate priority is expediting formation of the reinforced U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, called for in the resolution.
He said Secretary Rice discussed the issue by telephone with Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy of France, and that U.S. military planners were in New York meeting with U.N. officials.
The United States will not contribute troops to the expanded UNIFIL but has offered logistical help.