Beirut, Lebanon — Flush with a huge injection of fresh cash from its Iranian backers, and with its weapons stockpiles replenished many times over since the 2006 war, Hezbollah seems poised to win — or buy — the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon this June, many Lebanese fear.
Western diplomats share those concerns.
“Iran and a number of other countries are helping to bankroll their friends’ campaigns and, in some cases, are engaged in outright vote buying. We’re watching things carefully, with a particularly close eye on Hezbollah and Iran,” one senior diplomat tells Newsmax.
Sources in Lebanon say that Iran in recent months has smuggled in large amounts of cash to Hezbollah — upwards of $1 billion — in order to buy the election.
“They are bringing in cash from Africa, especially from Nigeria,” a knowledgeable Lebanese source says. “They are using Hezbollah-owned aircraft, and bringing it in to a Hezbollah-controlled airport, Beirut.”
Iran also is smuggling in large quantities of U.S. dollars through Syria and Dubai, and changing the money into euros to disguise its origin, other sources say.
“Hezbollah money is coming from trafficking in Africa in diamonds, oil, and gold,” according to a prominent businessman.
Another way the Iranians have been filling Hezbollah’s coffers has been through the cover of commercial deals, several sources told Newsmax in Beirut recently.
“Iran ships consumer goods with no declared Customs value into the Port of Beirut, which is controlled by Hezbollah,” one source says. “These goods are then distributed to Hezbollah street vendors and shop owners, who use the proceeds of the sales to finance Hezbollah-related operations.”
Call it walk-around money, Hezbollah-style.
Early this month, the Obama administration sent its senior Middle East hand, acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, to Lebanon along with National Security Council official, Daniel Shapiro.
“In our conversations with officials in Lebanon and in the region, we have stressed the need for all parties to promote a climate by which the Lebanese voters can exercise their democratic right freely, without threat of intimidation,” Ambassador Feltman tells Newsmax. “We continue to support the Lebanese government’s efforts to hold free, fair, and transparent parliamentary elections on June 7, 2009, unmarred by political violence . . . and will continue to monitor the situation on the ground closely in the weeks and months ahead.”
Last spring, when the ruling coalition appeared on the verge of electing a nationalist president with support from the United States, Hezbollah sent tens of thousands of supporters to the streets of Beirut, surrounding the parliament building, and forcing the nation — and the election — to grind to a halt.
“Before May 7, people were saying it would take Hezbollah a matter of days to take over the country, should they decide to do so,” a former U.S. government counter-insurgency specialist tells Newsmax. “They showed they could do it in just six hours.”
Now, observers in Beirut are worried that Hezbollah could pull a repeat performance as the country braces itself for the June elections.
“Hezbollah intends to win these elections whatever it costs,” says Toni Nissi, secretary general of the Cedars Revolution, a Christian movement that emerged after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and 22 others in a massive car bombing in February 2005. “This election victory will allow them to transform their illegal institutions into legal ones.”
Nissi and others say that Hezbollah has been buying up land and buildings in strategic crossroads inside Christian neighborhoods, and stockpiling weapons there in fortified bunkers for an eventual military confrontation.
“They feel they can stage a May 7-style coup anytime and once again invade the streets of Beirut, surround the parliament, hold the government hostage, and no one will say anything,” he told Newsmax in Beirut recently.
A source close to the Hezbollah leadership confirmed these plans to Newsmax. The bunkers in Christian areas are being built for forces called the Lebanese Resistance Brigades, the source said.
They include Saudi-sponsored fighters loyal to Seyed Mohammad al-Hosseini, the secretary general of the Islamic Arab Resistance, who are being trained in Hezbollah-controlled areas in south Lebanon and the Bekaa valley.
But they also include “Christians loyal to [former prime minister] Gen. Michel Aoun,” the source adds.
The ruling March 14 coalition that emerged after the Hariri assassination in 2005 shunned Aoun when he returned to Lebanon from a 15-year exile in France that spring.
Until then, Aoun had been a staunch opponent of Iranian and Syrian interference in Lebanon, but with his political goal of leading a nationalist revival in tatters, he made an about-face and joined forces with Hezbollah the following year. [Read "Lebanon's Divided Christian Camp."]
On Dec. 4, 2008, Aoun traveled to neighboring Syria for a four-day visit where he was received with presidential honors and met with senior Iranian government envoys.
Informed sources in Beirut tell Newsmax that Aoun “tried to position himself as a protector not only of Christians in Lebanon, but of the wider Christian community,” and specifically asked the Iranians “to intervene with the government of Iraq to win the release of [former Iraqi deputy prime minister] Tariq Aziz.”
Aziz, a Christian whose real name is Mikhail Yohanna, has been in U.S. custody outside Baghdad since 2003 and was finally indicted last week for the 1992 execution of 42 businessmen accused of illegal foreign-currency exchange.
Aoun’s pact with Hezbollah continues to anger the U.S. government, which shunned him during the final years of the Bush administration after several attempts to win his support by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Aoun appears by his statements, travel, and positions to be more and more deeply embedded to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah,” an informed U.S. official tells Newsmax.
“Ambassador Feltman's recent trip was intended to reassure the Lebanese about continued strong U.S. support for a sovereign, independent Lebanon. Clearly, that's not a message Gen. Aoun, as Hezbollah's partner, seeks to hear,” the official added.
Speaking to reporters in Lebanon over the weekend about rumors that the Obama administration sought to open a dialogue with his organization, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said this showed that the U.S. was weak and its policies in the region had failed.
“When the U.S. accepts to hold a dialogue with any party with or without conditions, it does so due to the [fact] that its regional plans have failed,” he said.
“Is Hezbollah ready to open a dialogue with the U.S.? If so, we also have our own conditions, we as Hezbollah cannot recognize Israel," Nasrallah said.
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