Lebanon Conflict Hits Close to Home for Congressman

Congressman Ray LaHood (R-IL), a Lebanese-American, talks with Renee Montagne about the conflict between Lebanon and Israel. LaHood is helping some of his constituents evacuate from Lebanon.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in the U.S., many lawmakers are voicing their support for Israel. The Senate yesterday approved a resolution that condemns the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas and holds Syria and Iran accountable for acts of aggression carried out by the militant groups. The House is expected to take up a similar resolution today.

One lawmaker with a particular interest in Lebanon is Congressman Ray LaHood. The Illinois republican is the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant. Many of his constituents have roots in Lebanon and some are stranded there. Representative LaHood joins us now on the line from his home in Washington. Good morning.

Representative RAY LAHOOD (Republican, Illinois): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What are you hearing from your constituents back home as this conflict continues?

Rep. LAHOOD: Well, obviously, the people in my hometown of Peoria, where we have a very large Lebanese population, these people that live in my home community traditionally travel to Lebanon for the summer; so we have several hundred people who are in Lebanon visiting family and friends and the families back in Peoria are very, very worried and very scared. And I'm delighted to see that our government now is providing cruise ships that will give safe passage to people from Beirut over to Cyprus so that they can return back to Peoria or Dearborn or other places from which they've come. But there's a lot of concern in my hometown of Peoria.

MONTAGNE: Well, how many of your constituents are stranded in Lebanon? Sounds like you think the state department is doing enough at this point.

Rep. LAHOOD: Well, we had a meeting yesterday with Mr. Welch, the undersecretary, who had just returned from the region, and he assured us -Senator Sununu and others and myself - that there would be safe passage provided at no charge, and so I'm delighted that that announcement was made, too. And I'm pleased with what our government's doing to give people safe passage. It's probably not quick enough for some, but over the next several days I believe all that want to leave Lebanon and return to America will have that opportunity to come on a boat, through Cyprus, and then on back to the United States.

MONTAGNE: In that meeting yesterday with State Department officials, what concerns did you communicate to them?

Rep. LAHOOD: I think that our government needs to use, you know, some restraint. I'm very concerned about the innocent people that have been killed in Lebanon. I'm concerned about the fact that all roads leading out of Lebanon, except to Syria, have been closed up, that the airport has been closed. You know, I don't fault Israel for going into the southern part of the country and trying to find the soldiers and really trying to bring down Hezbollah. I don't see what good it does, though, to completely shut down the economy and shut down the country by closing the airport and closing all passage out. I don't know what value there is in that. I don't know what value there is in bombing innocent Lebanese people in areas where Hezbollah does not exist. That's the fault that I find and that's what I expressed to Mr. Welch yesterday. And I also expressed the idea that I hope our government officials will ask for a restraint on the part of Israel in the areas of Lebanon and the areas of Beirut where innocent people are, where Hezbollah does not exist.

MONTAGNE: Now, just briefly. You've also criticized Lebanon's president for allowing Hezbollah to take root there.

Rep. LAHOOD: Absolutely. I was in Lebanon two years ago and I said that the government should not give another term to President Lahoud and they did; and that was wrong. He's a very weak president. He's allowed Hezbollah to become entrenched in the southern part of the country. I hope that the new prime minister there, that succeeded Prime Minister Hariri after his assassination, can step up and do more. But listen, they have a very weak government right now and no one has been more critical of the president for taking another term against the constitution of the country, and I spoke out in Lebanon, in Beirut, two years ago.

MONTAGNE: Congressman, thank you very much. Congressman Ray LaHood is a Republican from Illinois.

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