|Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, right, meets Prime Minister- Fuad Saniora at the presidential palace in Baabda|
The United States Tuesday welcomed the formation of Lebanon's new government, the first cabinet there free of dominant Syrian influence in three decades. However, the State Department said it will have no dealings with the one cabinet official described as an active member of Hezbollah.
Officials here have a mixed response to the cabinet announcement from Beirut, welcoming the formation of an independent-minded government but ruling out contact with the one member of the 24-person cabinet identified as a senior figure in Hezbollah.
The militant Shiite group Hezbollah has been part of the political mainstream in Lebanon for many years. But it continues to field an armed militia in defiance of last year's U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, and has a long record of involvement in acts of terrorism in Lebanon and abroad.
It was believed to have been behind, among other things, the devastating 1983 truck bomb attacks on the American embassy and a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed more than 300 people. Hezbollah was formally listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli welcomed the formation of the cabinet by Prime Minister-designate Fouad Siniora as an important step that reflects the will of the Lebanese people in historic elections which ended last month.
Mr. Ereli said the United States looks forward to working with the new government, once it is approved by parliament, as it moves to implement reforms and Resolution 1559. But he said U.S. law forbids contacts with active members of designated terrorist organizations like Hezbollah:
"As you know, we have a policy towards Hezbollah. It's clear,"
Mr. Ereli says. "It hasn't changed. And to the extent that there are active members of a foreign terrorist organization in a government, then our ability to interact and work with those individuals is circumscribed."
A senior official who spoke to reporters here said the policy means there will be no U.S. dealings with Energy Minister-designate Mohammed Fneish of Hezbollah.
But he did not rule out U.S. contacts with several others in the prospective new Lebanese government who are described as pro-Hezbollah without technically being members of the organization.
Hezbollah, with its political base mainly in the Shiite suburbs of Beirut and the southern part of the country, has 14 members in the 128-seat parliament.
Unlike other political movements from the country's civil war era, it has refused to disarm its militia wing, which controls a strip of territory along Lebanon's border with Israel and has been involved in periodic clashes with Israeli forces.
U.S. officials say Hezbollah receives material backing from Iran and had logistical support from Syria before it withdrew its troops from Lebanon earlier this year.
In addition to demanding an end to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, last September's Security Council resolution 1559, sponsored by the United States and France, called for the disbanding and disarmament of all militias, a reference to Hezbollah.
The United States is continuing to press for full implementation of the measure, including the removal of Syrian intelligence agents, who U.S. officials say remain in Lebanon despite the troop pullout completed in March.