Pompeo at odds with Lebanese officials over Hezbollah

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday called on the Lebanese people to stand up to Hezbollah's "criminality, terror and threats," and claimed U.S. sanctions on Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally were working and that more pressure on them was forthcoming.

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His comments in Beirut were in strong contrast to those of his host, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil who minutes earlier, while standing next to Pompeo, insisted that Hezbollah is "a Lebanese group that is not a terrorist organization and was elected by the people."

Pompeo, however, warned that "the Lebanese people face a choice: Bravely move forward or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future."

He added that the U.S. would continue using "all peaceful means" to curb Hezbollah and Iran's influence.

Pompeo highlighted U.S. concerns about Hezbollah's "destabilizing activities" in Lebanon and the region in talks his with Lebanese leaders, amid strong regional condemnation of President Donald Trump's declaration that it's time the U.S. recognized Israel's sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The abrupt pronouncement on the Golan Heights clouded Pompeo's visit during which he met with top officials, including some who are aligned with the Iran- and Syria-allied militant Hezbollah.

The visit is the last leg of a Mideast tour that took Pompeo to Kuwait and Israel, where he lauded warm ties with Israel, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on at least three separate occasions and promised to step up pressure on Iran.

From Israel, Pompeo's plane travelled through Cypriot airspace, as Lebanon, which is technically in a state of war with Israel, bans direct flights from Israel.

Once on the ground, Pompeo was taken to the Interior Ministry for a brief meeting with Raya El-Hassan, who was named earlier this year as the Arab world's first female minister in charge of security.

Pompeo also met with Lebanon's powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, before heading for a working lunch with Prime Minister Saad Hariri followed by a meeting with President Michel Aoun. The State Department's deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, said Pompeo highlighted in the meetings U.S. concerns about Hezbollah's "destabilizing activities in Lebanon and the region" as well as the need to maintain calm along the border between Lebanon and Israel.

In his Lebanon visit, Pompeo had hoped to step up pressure on the Shiite Hezbollah group, but he faces resistance even from America's local allies, who fear that pushing too hard could trigger a backlash and endanger the tiny country's fragile peace. Hezbollah wields more power than ever in parliament and the government.

Aoun's office said the president told Pompeo that the country's priority is to preserve national unity and peace adding that "Hezbollah is a Lebanese party that has a popular base representing one of the main (religious) sects in the country."

Pompeo later met with Bassil, the foreign minister. He, as well as Aoun and Berri, are close Hezbollah allies, while Hariri is a close Western ally who has been reluctant to confront Hezbollah.

"How does stockpiling tens of thousands of missiles in Lebanon territory for use against Israel make this country stronger?" asked Pompeo, referring to Hezbollah's arsenal that the group boasts can strike any part of Israel.

"Hezbollah and its illegitimate militia put the entire country on the front lines of Iran's misguided proxy campaign," Pompeo added.

He said that Washington would continue to use "all peaceful means possible" to pressure Hezbollah, an apparent reference to the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed over the years and are drying up the militant group's finances. Pompeo referred to comments made by Hezbollah's leader earlier this month in which he urged supporters to donate money to the group.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV aired the comments made by Bassil live, but cut back to normal programming once Pompeo began reading his statement.

President Aoun, speaking to Russian journalists ahead of a visit to Moscow later this month, said that the sanctions imposed on Hezbollah, Iran and Syria are negatively impacting the already fragile Lebanese economy.

"The negative effect of the sanctions on Hezbollah is hitting all Lebanese people as well as Lebanese banks," he said in remarks released later on Friday.

Earlier this week, Pompeo had said "we'll spend a lot of time talking with the Lebanese government about how we can help them disconnect from the threat that Iran and Hezbollah present."

"Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. You ask how tough I am going to be? It is a terrorist organization. Period. Full stop," Pompeo said in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Pompeo's visit to Lebanon came as the Trump administration hit Iran with new sanctions on Friday.

The Treasury Department said the sanctions target 31 Iranian scientists, technicians and companies affiliated with Iran's Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, which had been at the forefront of the country's former nuclear weapons program. Officials said those targeted continue to work in Iran's defense sector and form a core of experts who could reconstitute that program. Fourteen people, including the head of the organization and 17 subsidiary operations are covered by the sanctions.

The sanctions freeze any assets that those targeted may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from any transactions with them.

Trump's statement about the Golan Heights on Thursday is a major shift in American policy. For some time, the administration has been considering recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the strategic highlands, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. In a tweet that appeared to catch many by surprise, Trump said the time had come for the United States to take the step.

The U.S. will be the first country to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, which the rest of the international community regards as territory occupied by Israel whose status should be determined by negotiations between Israel and Syria.

Syria, Iran and Turkey on Friday strongly denounced Trump's statement.

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Lee reported from Jerusalem.