BEIRUT (Reuters) - The pro-Iranian Hezbollah group accused the United States on Friday of endangering regional stability by deploying a warship off Lebanon and vowed to defy what it called an act of military intimidation.
The United States said on Thursday it sent the destroyer USS Cole to the eastern Mediterranean because the Bush administration was concerned about Lebanon’s political deadlock.
“The American move threatens the stability of Lebanon and the region and it is an attempt to spark tension,” Hezbollah member of parliament Hassan Fadlallah told Reuters by telephone.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, leads a Lebanese opposition locked in a 15-month-old power struggle with the Western-backed governing coalition.
The standoff, which Washington blames on Syrian meddling, has left Lebanon without a president since November.
“The American administration has used the policy of sending warships to support its allies in Lebanon before, and that experiment failed and backfired,” Fadlallah said.
“We don’t succumb to threats and military intimidation practiced by the United States to implement its hegemony over Lebanon.”
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said his government had not requested any such move by Washington.
“Regarding reports that U.S. warships have arrived to the east of the Mediterranean, it is important that I make clear that there are no foreign warships in Lebanese territorial waters,” Siniora said, addressing Arab ambassadors.
“We did not call any warships from any side.”
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that for U.S. adversaries, the move was “just a reminder, that we are there”.
“We have a long-term commitment to peace and stability there (in the region), and we’re not going anywhere ... we intend to maintain a very robust, defensive presence there,” he said.
“America repeats the adventure of ‘82,” the headline of the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper said, referring to a big U.S. military deployment in Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion.
At that time the United States deployed Marines in Beirut and warships off the coast to support a Lebanese government trying to reach a peace deal with Israel.
U.S. forces had to pull out after a series of suicide bombings by pro-Iranian militants, one of which killed 241 Marines. The Lebanese government was forced to scrap its peace agreement with Israel under pressure from Syria and its local allies.
A U.S. defense official said the Cole left Malta on Tuesday heading toward Lebanon. It would not be visible from the Lebanese coast but would stay “well over the horizon”.
Lebanon’s presidential election was postponed again this week to March 11 from February 26, the 15th such delay, after rival leaders failed to reach a deal.
The deadlock has threatened to degenerate into sectarian violence and continues to poison inter-Arab relations in the run-up to an Arab League summit in Syria on March 29-30.
The deployment of the USS Cole was announced two weeks after the assassination of senior Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyah, who was on the United States’ most wanted list of terrorists.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel for Moughniyah’s killing in Damascus and vowed to avenge his death. Israel denies any links but its secret Mossad spy service had sought the Lebanese militant for two decades.
Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Susan Cornwell and Andrew Gray in Washington; Writing by Nadim Ladki; editing by Robert Woodward