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US Cautions Lebanon on Ahmadinejad Visit

A Lebanese worker washes a portrait of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a border park in the village of Maroun el-Rass on the Lebanon-Israel border, Lebanon, 4 Oct 2010

The United States said Tuesday it has raised concerns with Lebanese authorities about reported plans by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit southern Lebanon during his three-day visit to that country next week. U.S. officials are concerned about possible incidents along the volatile Lebanon-Israel border.

The State Department acknowledges it is Lebanon's sovereign right to invite whatever foreign leader it chooses to visit the country. Nonetheless, the United States is questioning the wisdom of reported plans by Lebanese authorities to allow the Iranian leader to visit the tense border area. The Iranian-backed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah has said Mr. Ahmadinejad will visit its southern Lebanon stronghold, including a border point where pro-Hezbollah visitors throw stones toward the Israeli side.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States hopes Iran will play a constructive role in the region and that stone-throwing - either figurative or literal - is not constructive behavior.

Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue late last month in New York with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. Crowley said Clinton expressed concern about it, given that Iran - through its association with groups like Hezbollah - is "actively undermining Lebanon's sovereignty."

"We respect the fact that countries can chose to have diplomatic relations with other countries. That is a sovereign choice for Lebanon and for Iran," said Crowley. "It's not for us to tell them who they should or should not talk to. We did say to Lebanese officials that this is a country that is actively undermining your government. And we believe that whatever you decide to do, should be in light of making sure that the Lebanese government continues to demand that Iran or any other country respect its sovereignty."

Although part of Lebanon's coalition government, Hezbollah has refused to yield its largely-Iranian supplied weaponry to the regular Lebanese armed forces. Hezbollah is listed by the United States as a terrorist organization.

Israel, which fought a border war with Hezbollah in 2006, also reportedly has urged Lebanese officials to cancel the border visit by Mr. Ahmadinejad, which it has described as a provocation.

In Lebanon, members of the March 14 Alliance - the political bloc headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harri - have criticized the planned Iranian visit as a bid to underline Iran's potential to disrupt Middle East peace efforts.

The visit has been defended by Hezbollah spokesmen and by Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki, who said his country supports Lebanon's government and stability.