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US Considers New Aid to Lebanese Armed Forces


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the Bush administration is considering new aid to the Lebanese armed forces to help shore up the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Rice says she is not concerned about appearing to take sides in the Siniora government's political struggle with pro-Syrian forces. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The United States provided $10 million in emergency aid to the Lebanese armed forces in August at the end of the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Now, officials say the Bush administration is considering another, much larger, infusion of aid to the Lebanese army to support its deployment to the Israeli border, and also to underscore U.S. backing for the Siniora government.

Secretary of State Rice said in a Washington Post interview published Friday the administration is consulting with Congress about the aid package to reform and re-equip Lebanese forces, and said she believes "mainstream" Arab states are also prepared to contribute.

Rice said that post-war U.S. reconstruction aid to Lebanon, which now totals about $250 million, could eventually approach a billion dollars, though she did not say in the interview how much would go to the Lebanese military.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration believes it is important to build up the Lebanese forces as a government institution, noting that in accordance with the August U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended the fighting, they have taken up positions along the Israeli border, where Hezbollah once had free reign:

"They are now down in the south of Lebanon, they are now fully throughout Lebanese territory for the first time in 30 years," he said. "Over a period of time, their capabilities have diminished. So it's important that we, as well as others, do what we can to help rebuild those capabilities, whether that's with training, or equipment or other kinds of assistance."

The Lebanese army, which includes members from all the country's major religious groups, has been poorly funded for years and is not considered a military match for the Shi'ite Hezbollah forces.

Rice's interview comments come as the Siniora government is under siege from demonstrators led by Hezbollah, who are demanding its resignation and replacement with a so-called unity government in which Hezbollah would have veto power.

The United States has accused Syria and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah of trying to subvert democracy in Lebanon and block a U.N. mandated inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syrian officials have been implicated.

Rice told the Washington Post she has no concern about appearing to side with anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon, who she said took to the streets to force an end to 30 years of Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and to demand accountability for the Hariri assassination and other political murders.

The Secretary also used the interview to again voice concern about the recommendation of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran to help end strife in Iraq.

She said the compensation Iran and Syria would require for such help might be too high, and that if they really had an interest in helping stabilize Iraq, they would do so on their own.

As to Lebanon, Rice said that country's democracy is not going to be sacrificed in a deal with Syria about Middle East stability.