Saudis wanted Arab force in Lebanon: WikiLeaks

DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia proposed an “Arab army” should be deployed in Lebanon, with U.S. air and naval cover, to stop Hezbollah after it seized control of parts of Beirut in 2008, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

Riyadh has led Arab efforts in recent years to contain Iran and its regional allies such as the Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, partly through backing for Sunni Muslims who lead Lebanon’s government.

The group took over the Muslim part of Beirut in May 2008 after the government of then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tried to outlaw Hezbollah’s telecommunications network.

In a May 10 meeting in Riyadh between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and David Satterfield, then the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad, the Saudi prince said the force was needed to stop an “Iranian takeover of all Lebanon”.

“Saud concluded by underscoring that a U.N./Arab peacekeeping force coupled with U.S. air and naval support would ‘keep out Hezbollah forever’ in Lebanon,” said the cable, released by WikiLeaks. It noted that Satterfield was skeptical about the idea.

“What was needed was an ‘Arab force’ drawn from Arab ‘periphery’ states to deploy to Beirut under the ‘cover of the U.N.’ and with a significant presence drawn from UNIFIL in south Lebanon ‘which is sitting doing nothing’,” the cable said, detailing Prince Saud’s proposal.

A United Nations force known as UNIFIL is deployed on Lebanon’s southern border to help maintain calm with Israel, which fought a war in 2006 that did not succeed in its aim of crushing Hezbollah.

“The U.S. and NATO would be asked to provide equipment for such a force as well as logistics, movement support, and ‘naval and air cover’,” it added.

U.S. forces were deployed as part of a multinational force sent in 1982 to help maintain order during Lebanon’s civil war but they left after suicide bombers struck U.S. and French barracks in Beirut.

The prince told Satterfield that Egypt, Jordan and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa were aware of the idea, as well as Sinioram whom he described as a strong supporter.

The prince said Lebanon was the easiest front on which to push back Iranian influence -- as opposed to Iraq and the Palestinian territories, where Iran also has allies -- by securing peace.

The crisis in May 2008 was resolved through a peace agreement broked by Saudi rival Qatar that brought Hezbollah back into the Siniora government.

Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Mark Trevelyan