Pompeo raps Hezbollah for ‘dark ambitions’

Pompeo characterized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization with “rogue criminal networks” that is involved in “drug smuggling” and money laundering.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pictured before boarding a plane leaving Egypt as he departs for Manama, Bahrain, at Cairo International Airport in Cairo, Egypt, January 11, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pictured before boarding a plane leaving Egypt as he departs for Manama, Bahrain, at Cairo International Airport in Cairo, Egypt, January 11, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

BEIRUT: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Friday lambasted Hezbollah for putting the interests of itself and its patron Iran over Lebanon and taking unilateral action on “war and peace and life and death.”

Reading a press statement standing next to Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil - an important ally of Hezbollah - Pompeo characterized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization with “rogue criminal networks” that is involved in “drug smuggling” and money laundering.

“Indeed, Hezbollah robs the Lebanese state of resources that rightfully belong to its people,” he said.

Pompeo’s remarks came after he met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in a flurry of bilateral talks that centered on Hezbollah, but also touched on U.S. support for the Lebanese Army and a dispute over Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.

“Frankly Lebanon and the Lebanese people face a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation, or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future,” he said.

He added, however, that the U.S. would also use “peaceful means” to pressure Iran and Hezbollah, primarily through sanctions.

Shortly before he spoke, The U.S. Treasury Department announced that it was imposing new sanctions on 14 people and 17 entities connected to Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, a research organization the U.S. alleged played a central role in the Islamic Republic’s past nuclear weapons effort.

Pompeo said sanctions were having their intended effect.

He noted that Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah had “begged” for donations from followers during a speech earlier this month, citing financial pressures.

Speaking before Pompeo, Bassil had dubbed Hezbollah “a Lebanese group that is not a terrorist organization, and has great popular support and elected MPs.”

Speaking largely in a conciliatory manner, Bassil called for U.S. companies to participate in tenders in Lebanon, using the country’s nascent oil and gas sector as an example.

He also noted Lebanon’s commitment to U.N. Resolution 1701 which ended the 2006 July War with Israel.

But Pompeo focused almost entirely on Hezbollah, even suggesting that the group’s representation in the Lebanese Parliament was partially down to “intimidation.”

“Whether through political promises or outright intimidation, Hezbollah sits inside the national assembly [and] other state institutions and pretends to support the state. Meanwhile, Hezbollah defies the state and the people of Lebanon through a terrorist wing that is intent on spreading its destruction,” he said.

“In 2018, the U.S. provided more than $800 million in assistance to Lebanon. A fair question: what did Hezbollah and Iran contribute? “They contributed coffins of young Lebanese returning from Syria, and evermore Iranian weapons,” he said.

The pair took no questions, based on the request of the American delegation, a Foreign Ministry official told reporters.

Hezbollah did not comment on Pompeo’s remarks.

A source close to Berri told The Daily Star that during his hourlong meeting with Pompeo, the Speaker accepted a proposal by the official to form a tripartite committee - including representatives of the U.N. secretary-general, Lebanon and Israel - which aims to delineate the southern border. The committee would also benefit from the facilitation of a U.S. representative.

A similar proposal had previously been on the table during a failed U.S.-led mediation attempt last year, however, Pompeo relayed Israel’s pre-approval of the process this time around, the source said.

According to the source, Berri responded: “Great, let it start, but we begin on the maritime border because things are much clearer regarding the land border.” Bassil meanwhile said after meeting with Pompeo that he had responded “positively” to what had been put forward on the issue.

Lebanon is hoping to begin its first exploratory drilling in one of two maritime areas later this year - one of which partially lies in territory disputed by Israel and Lebanon.

Berri and Aoun also both reiterated that Hezbollah was a Lebanese political party that enjoys wide-ranging support.

Berri saying that the “armed resistance against Israel is a result of the continuing Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.”

He also said that U.S. sanctions Pompeo trumpeted had a “negative impact” on Lebanon and the Lebanese people.

Lebanon was in line with international laws on financial transparency, having in 2015 endorsed an anti-money laundering law, he said.

Aoun meanwhile said that the maintenance of national unity and civil peace in Lebanon was a priority for Lebanese, and Hezbollah enjoys large support form one of Lebanon’s major sects. Indeed, Hezbollah won more votes than any other single party in May parliamentary elections last year.

The president also asked Pompeo to help with the return of over 1 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon to Syria.

Little information was provided on Pompeo’s meeting with Hariri, which was held over a working lunch. A tweet from Pompeo’s account said that he had assured Hariri of “continued U.S. support for the Lebanese people and Lebanon’s legitimate state institutions.”

The State Department’s deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, told Agence France Presse that Pompeo and Hariri discussed the U.S.-Lebanese security partnership and its importance.

Pompeo’s first meeting Friday had been with Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, with whom he discussed support for the Internal Security Forces and “ways the U.S. and Lebanon can work together to build safety and stability inside Lebanon,” according to a tweet from his account.

The top U.S. diplomat also met with Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt. A spokesperson for Geagea said information on the meeting would be released Saturday.

A statement from Joumblatt’s office only said the pair had met, without providing a location or expanding on the topics discussed.

Hariri, Geagea and Joumblatt were members of the now-defunct March 14 Movement that formerly brought together pro-western Lebanese political factions.

Pompeo’s public comments laid out an unyielding U.S. stance on Hezbollah but his closed-door meetings with some Lebanese leaders signaled hopes of finding resolutions for important issues.

Capping off a busy day, Pompeo Friday night attended a dinner hosted by Independent MP Michel Moawad that included members of most of Lebanon’s Christian political groups.

The Lebanese Forces, however, excused themselves from the dinner ahead of time. Several LF officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the reason for that decision.

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