* Total cut-off in military aide seen as unlikely
* U.S. lawmakers may push for reduction in assistance
* Both sides may have reason to avoid confrontation
(Adds Berman quotes, paragraphs 17-19)
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, June 5 (Reuters) - Chances are low that the United States would totally cut off military funding to Lebanon if Hezbollah and its allies win Sunday’s election because both sides will want to avoid a confrontation, analysts said.
But a victory by the militant Shi’ite group, viewed as a "terrorist organization" by Washington, and its allies could lead to a reduction in what has been burgeoning U.S. assistance to the Lebanese armed forces in recent years.
Pollsters expect the "March 8" alliance that includes Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah to gain a slight edge in the election and to erase the governing Western-backed, anti-Syrian "March 14" coalition’s slender majority.
That said, with vote-buying rampant and many expatriates returning to cast ballots, the parliamentary election may be too close to call and the outcome could be a national unity government, albeit one in which Hezbollah has a stronger hand.
As a result, analysts saw little chance of a major swing in Lebanese government policy, or of Hezbollah forcing through an agenda unpalatable to Washington.
"The election’s likely muted outcome militates against tectonic change in Lebanon," Mona Yacoubian of the United States Institute for Peace wrote this week. "Neither side will be able to impose a highly partisan agenda."
The United States has given the Lebanese armed forces more than $500 million since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, seeking to build up an institution eroded by decades of sectarian strife and foreign influence.
The assassination triggered an international outcry that led neighboring Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon and gave rise to the "March 14" anti-Syrian, pro-Western alliance that now holds a parliamentary majority.
Given Washington’s ban on funding groups that it deems "terrorist," a victory by Hezbollah would present the Obama administration with a judgment call on whether any government Hezbollah helped to form could keep getting U.S. funds.
Speaking in Beirut on May 22, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said "we will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates."
Some analysts suggested a cut-off was not in either side’s interest given U.S. overtures to Hezbollah’s two main patrons, Syria and Iran, and the likely reluctance of Hezbollah and its allies to totally isolate themselves from the West.
"I cannot imagine the United States turning its back on Lebanon," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, saying Hezbollah would probably not force the issue by demanding key security posts in the Cabinet.
"Generally speaking, we have found a way to work around the terrorist-designated organizations. I am quite sure that we can find a way to do it. And I suspect that Hezbollah would find a way to cooperate in that," Walker added.
"Hezbollah and Washington have an interest in not having a nuclear exchange over this," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
"Hezbollah actually has an interest in being influential but not winning, because if they force the issue, they could find themselves deeply isolated from the West," he added.
Sentiment in the U.S. Congress, however, may differ.
"The reflex here will be very negative" said a congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying a "March 8" victory would likely trigger a cut in funding.
Howard Berman, the California Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Friday issued a statement noting that in recent years the U.S. Congress had supported Lebanon’s sovereignty "with increasing vigor and financial commitment."
"It is my strong hope that the results of the upcoming election will allow this process to continue and flourish," he added.
"The Obama administration will ... be loathe, I think, to cut off funding ... but Congress may pose a bigger problem and will look to scale back foreign assistance," said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
If the March 8 alliance wins, "we’ll have to reassess the direction of our policy," said a congressional aide who spoke on condition that he not be named, adding that "it’s pretty likely that (U.S. funding) would be assessed downward."
The importance of the elections to Washington is shown by the fact that Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both visited Beirut in the last six weeks, a remarkable demonstration of U.S. interest.
"The stakes are quite high," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be named.
"Is Lebanon going to continue on the path of consolidating its independence and sovereignty and economic prosperity, or is it going to take a different road?" he added.
"These elections are being watched closely throughout the region as evidence as to whether forces aligned with Iran and Syria are on the upswing, or whether the forces aligned with pragmatism and moderation ... will gain strength," he said.