BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah's growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.
The armed Shi'ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri's new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.
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U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been "very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government", according to an embassy statement.
Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group "continues to make its own national security decisions – decisions that endanger the rest of the country".
It also "continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries", she said. Lebanon's official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region's conflicts.
Hezbollah's regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.
A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.
The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as "the sole, legitimate defender" of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.
"In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance – and that’s an increase over the previous year."
(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)