The Obama administration said Tuesday that it is trying to persuade key Democratic legislators to end a hold on U.S. military aid to Lebanon. Two House of Representatives committee heads are blocking delivery of $100 million in assistance, out of concern about possible Hezbollah influence in Lebanon's armed forces.
State Department officials say concern in Congress over last week's lethal border clash between Israeli and Lebanese troops is valid, but that helping the Lebanese army build its capabilities is in the U.S. national interest.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey have announced holds on this year's installment of aid to the Lebanese armed forces.
Berman placed his hold on August 2, a day before an Israeli army officer was killed by a sniper in Lebanon while Israeli troops were removing a tree along the border.
Israel returned fire, killing two Lebanese troops and a journalist in the deadliest violence along the border since 2006.
Lebanon claimed the tree that Israeli troops removed was on its side of the border. The United Nations later determined it was on the Israeli side.
Berman says he is concerned about Hezbollah's influence in the Lebanese armed forces, and says he will not allow aid to go forward until he is assured the Lebanese army remains a responsible actor.
Lowey said she acted in response to what she called an entirely-preventable and unprovoked attack on Israeli troops.
The Bush administration began providing equipment and training to the Lebanese national forces in 2006 to counter Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia that fought a month-long war with Israel that year.
The Obama administration has continued the aid program. And State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley says it should go forward despite the August 3 incident.
"We continue to believe that supporting the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army is in our national interest to contribute to stability in the region," he said. "That said, we obviously expressed our concerns about the incident last week. We still have an ongoing dialogue, ourselves, with Lebanese officials including discussions with the Lebanese military to try to fully understand what happened, and how it can be prevented in the future."
Crowley says there are no indications that the U.S. training program, or U.S.-supplied weapons, figured in the incident.
The Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri says the Congressional hold on aid is unwarranted and will weaken Lebanon's efforts to build its army.
State Department Spokesman Crowley says some aid approved last year remains in the pipeline, so it is unclear when the Congressional hold might begin to have an impact.
A senior official who spoke to reporters here expressed confidence that concerns of the House committee chairs can be addressed and that they will agree to release the funds.
He said the case for the aid program is "compelling" and that Hezbollah will not be able to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Lebanese governments.