Monday, March 03, 2008

Deployment of US warships off coast

Hizbullah slams deployment of US warships off coast
Moussa visits Damascus ahead of arab summit

By Hussein Abdallah
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: A US deployment of warships off the coast of Lebanon further sharpened tensions in the crisis-plagued country on Friday, as Hizbullah condemned the move and the Lebanese government said it did not ask for the ships to be sent. Hizbullah on Friday denounced Washington's dispatch of the USS Cole and two other vessels to waters off Lebanon as military interference. Hizbullah's condemnation came as pro-government newspapers in Beirut said the deployment was a clear signal to Syria, which is accused by the ruling coalition of blocking a presidential vote in Beirut. A senior Hizbullah official, Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, told The Daily Star on Friday that the US decision to send the warships was an "unhelpful" one. "It is not the first time the US uses such tactics. It seems they have not learned the lessons of the past," he said, hinting at the attacks on US targets that followed the naval shelling of Lebanese areas during the Civil War. "The US failed to take over the region despite its occupation of Iraq. Sending warships would not change anything," Abu Zeinab added.

The United States acknowledged on Thursday that it had sent the guided-missile destroyer and two other ships to the waters off Lebanon, which has been embroiled in a paralyzing political crisis for months. It is "a show of support for regional stability" because of "concern about the situation in Lebanon," a US official said on condition of anonymity, declining to say whether the show of force was aimed at Syria or Iran. The US also played down Hizbullah's criticism of the deployment, insisting that the show of force was meant to promote stability. "On Hizbullah's concerns, I would express some of our own concerns with Hizbullah's actions. So I'll just leave it at that," White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters. Johndroe sidestepped questions about comments from Lebanese Premier Fouad Siniora, who said Friday that his government did not ask Washington to send warships to the area. "We have regular consultations with Prime Minister Siniora and his government, as well as our allies, both in the immediate region, as well as in Europe on the situation in Lebanon," said the spokesman. "There's constant communication at various levels. But let's be clear: The purpose of the US Navy ships in the Eastern Mediterranean is a show of support for regional stability," amid Lebanon's political crisis," Johndroe said. "I know we share with Prime Minister Siniora a desire for the situation in Lebanon to be resolved, and resolved by the Lebanese people," he added.

Siniora, whose government is backed by the West and most Arab countries, had stressed earlier during a meeting with Arab ambassadors that Beirut did not ask for the warships and had summoned a top US diplomat for "clarifications." "We did not ask anyone to send warships," Siniora said, adding that no US warship was in "Lebanese waters." Earlier, Siniora summoned US Charge d'Affaires Michel Sison "to ask her to clarify the presence of the USS Cole" in the Mediterranean, a government source told AFP. "Mrs. Sison assured him that the warship was in international waters and had been dispatched to guarantee regional stability," the source added. Meanwhile, a media officer for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Neeraj Singh, said on Friday that UNIFIL forces had not been informed of the United States' sudden move. Elias Hanna, retired general and political science professor at the Notre Dame University, told The Daily Star on Friday that some reactions to the US move were extremely exaggerated. "The move is not more than a political message," he said. "If the US wants to go to war, the deployment would be followed up by other escalatory military measures. We need to watch the buildup before we can make any judgment," he added. As the deployment stirred new tensions in Lebanon, the country was still waiting to receive an official invitation to take part in the upcoming Arab summit in Damascus.

Midnight Friday was the deadline for receiving invitations to take part in the summit, scheduled for March 29 and 30. No invitation was reported to have been received by the time The Daily Star went to press. Well-informed sources said the invitation might be handed over to Lebanon's representative in the Arab League, since Syria is unlikely to invite Siniora. Normally, an invitation would be delivered to the president, but the Siniora government has assumed presidential powers since former Emile Lahoud left office last November and no replacement was elected. Arab League chief Amr Moussa headed to Damascus on Friday to meet President Bashar Assad and make some arrangements for the summit. "Inter-Arab relations are very tense ahead of the upcoming summit," Moussa said before heading to the Syrian capital. - With agencies

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