Biden's Beirut Trip Attracts Critics

Vice President Joe Biden is in Beirut just ahead of Lebanese parliamentary elections that may result in a government led by Hezbollah and its allies. Some are accusing Biden of interfering in Lebanon's domestic affairs.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

While the president was in Annapolis, the vice president made a quick visit to Lebanon. Joe Biden's trip comes ahead of crucial parliamentary elections early next month. He met with top government officials and pledged fresh military aid, but he also told the Lebanese that the U.S. would reassess the aid commitment after the elections. As NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut, Biden's comments reflect concerns that the militant group Hezbollah may win more political power in the elections.

DEBORAH AMOS: The election campaign is loud and contentious for 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament. The contest is close but many here predict that the coalition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, will win more seats, and the losers will be the March 14th coalition, staunch allies of the United States. Hezbollah officials protested the vice president's comments today as quote, clear interference in Lebanese affairs.

This is the second high-level Washington visitor in a month, following a stopover by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It's an indication of the stakes in this election and Washington's support for Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. He's a former army general, a political independent, who may be a crucial broker in forming the next government. In Lebanon's complicated electoral system, where top government posts and parliamentary seats are apportioned by sect - Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Christian - no one party wins outright, says Paul Salem, with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Even Hezbollah's March 8th coalition can only gain a few more parliamentary seats than it has now.

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BLOCK: You know, some might paint a March 8th victory as Hezbollah taking over Lebanon, and paint it as if the Taliban took over Islamabad. The facts are very different.

AMOS: The coalition led by Hezbollah includes a Christian army general and another Shiite Muslim party, says Salem - parties with a long history in Lebanese politics.

BLOCK: Hezbollah has been in parliament and has been in government for years, and the West has dealt with that pragmatically, as not talking, isolating makes things worse, not better.

AMOS: But there is no doubt that a Hezbollah victory could complicate President Obama's strategy for Middle East diplomacy, says Osama Safa, a Lebanese political analyst. A win for Hezbollah's coalition will be seen as a gain for Iran, Hezbollah's ally and patron.

BLOCK: But I think our election will become irrelevant five days later, after the Iranian elections.

AMOS: What happens in Iran's presidential race matters in Beirut, says Safa.

BLOCK: We'll see that definitely. Because the opposition movement here, the very difficult opposition movement is led by Hezbollah, which is a direct ally of Iran and a very close ally of Iran. And I think if you have a moderate rule in Iran, you'll definitely at least have a moderate discourse by their allies in Lebanon.

AMOS: The Lebanese election has become a regional test of alliances. Vice President Joe Biden's visit suggests the outcome is crucial for Washington.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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