BEIRUT - Vice President Joe Biden, the most senior U.S. official to visit Lebanon in 26 years, took a swipe at Hezbollah on Friday, but denied seeking to sway an election that may unseat a Western-backed coalition.
Lebanese vote on June 7 in a poll that pits an alliance including Hezbollah -- an Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shi'ite group that Washington classifies as terrorist -- against an anti-Syrian coalition now holding a majority in parliament.
The vice president said the United States was committed to comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including Lebanon.
I urge those who would think about standing with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away from the spoilers, Biden added in a veiled reference to Hezbollah, which opposes U.S.-led efforts to forge Arab-Israeli peace.
Biden said he had come to show U.S. support for Lebanon's sovereignty, which cannot and will not be traded away.
I do not come here to back any party, he said after talks with President Michel Suleiman, but added that future U.S. aid to Lebanon would depend on the nature of the next government.
The election of leaders committed to the rule of law and economic reform opens the door to lasting growth and prosperity, Biden declared. We will evaluate the shape of our assistance program based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates.
Hezbollah criticized Biden's visit, which followed one by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April, as meddling in Lebanon, and denounced U.S. support for Israel.
The high American interest in Lebanon raises strong suspicion as to the real reason behind it, especially since it has become a clear and detailed intervention in Lebanese affairs, Hezbollah said in a statement.
TIGHT VOTE FORESEEN
Many analysts predict gains for Hezbollah and its allies, who include Christian leader Michel Aoun, in a tight vote which may lead to the formation of another national unity government.
Saad al-Hariri led a U.S.- and Saudi-backed coalition to victory in the 2005 election, held soon after an outcry over the assassination of his statesman father Rafik al-Hariri forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
Lebanese authorities closed many Beirut streets to ensure security for Biden's one-day visit. Helicopters clattered overhead and police sirens wailed across the capital.
Biden also met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a pro-Syrian ally of Hezbollah. He was due to join Defense Minister Elias al-Murr later for an announcement on U.S. military aid to Lebanon.
Since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, the United States has expanded military assistance to Lebanon to strengthen its armed forces as a counterweight to Hezbollah, the only Lebanese faction to remain armed after the 1975-1990 civil war.
U.S. military aid to Lebanon since 2006 has exceeded $400 million. Planned deliveries include artillery, tanks and aerial drones as well as light weapons, ammunition and vehicles.
Biden's visit was the first by an American vice president to Lebanon since 1983, the year when Shi'ite suicide bombers attacked the U.S. embassy and Marine headquarters, and the most senior U.S. visit since that time, a U.S. embassy official said.
Hezbollah, founded to fight Israel's occupation of Lebanon after a 1982 invasion, has since entered domestic politics to secure legitimacy as an armed resistance group, saying its weapons are needed to defend Lebanon from Israel.
Biden, without mentioning Hezbollah, said the United States upheld the principle that the Lebanese state, accountable to the Lebanese people, is the defender of Lebanese freedom.