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Lebanon: Increasing Violence Raising U.S. Concerns Over Iran

Smoke billows from burning tires as a Lebanese boy flashes the victory sign at a blocked road leading to the international airport in Beirut (AFP) Several times this year, the United States has sought to rally its allies in the Arab world against what it calls Iran's continued meddling in the region.

“Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere," U.S. President George W. Bush said in a speech in the United Arab Emirates in January. "So the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.”

In the same speech, Bush also accused Iran of exporting terror. He did not have to specify for his audience the destinations. Washington has often charged Iran and Syria with helping to arm the Lebanese Shi’ite Hizballah and of using it to destabilize the Western-leaning government in Beirut.

At the same time, Washington repeatedly charges Iran with funding and arming radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq that attack U.S. forces, complicating U.S. efforts to stabilize the country. And Washington equally accuses Iran of helping to arm Palestinian militant groups which oppose the Western-backed Mideast peace process.

"Iran is today the world's leading state sponsor of terror," Bush said. "It sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world, while its own people face repression and economic hardship at home."

Crisis Escalates

Despite the U.S. efforts to characterize Iran’s strategy, countering it has proved difficult, however. And the violence in Lebanon is likely to be seen in Washington as the latest measure of the challenge.

Latest reports from Lebanon indicate Hizballah gunmen have now seized control of large areas of western Beirut and also shut down a pro-government TV station and set ablaze the offices of a major newspaper. The unrest has closed Beirut's international airport, as well as the port. At least 10 people are reported to have been killed in the fighting so far.

The escalation of the Lebanese crisis comes despite Washington’s increasing efforts to isolate Iran in the region, and even one milestone of success.

That success was the recent boycott by half of the Arab League’s 22 heads of state of the league’s Syrian-hosted summit in March. Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Mideast and the conduit for Iran to project its influence not only into Syria and Lebanon but also across those states’ borders.

The concern now -- for both the United States and its Arab allies -- is whether the current fighting in Beirut could escalate into a prolonged conflict. And, even more so, whether Iran might regard Lebanon as a potential second hot front along with Iraq in its confrontation with Washington.

'Instruments Of Iranian Force'

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who was a diplomat in Lebanon during its civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, recently compared the Iranian approach in both countries.

“Iran is pursuing, as it were, a Lebanonization strategy [in Iraq], using the same techniques they used in Lebanon to co-opt elements of the local Shi’a community and use them as basically instruments of Iranian force,” Crocker told a U.S. congressional hearing in April.

He added that in both Iraq and Lebanon, Iran and Syria are working in tandem to prevent a stable Western-leaning state.

The question of how to respond to the threat of a new combat zone in the Mideast is sure to dominate policy discussions in many capitals over the coming days. In Washington, it has already led some reporters to ask whether the United States intends to send arms to the Beirut government.

"We're obviously concerned about what's going on, but I'm not aware of any outstanding request we have from the Lebanese armed forces," U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters on May 8.

The Hizballah are widely considered to have been fully re-armed by Iran and Syria following the Shi’ite militia’s war with Israel in 2006. Its weaponry includes Iranian-made guided missiles and Syrian-made rockets. The group has long controlled large parts of southern Lebanon as a virtually autonomous territory while participating in the political process in the capital.

As the political process has now collapsed, Hizballah gunmen have moved quickly to seize control of large areas of western Beirut and have attacked pro-government media facilities.