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Hezbollah Calls U.S. Warship Deployment off Lebanon a 'Threat'

Hezbollah denounced the deployment of U.S. warships off Lebanon and said Friday it won't be intimidated, while the U.S.-backed Lebanese government distanced itself from the military move.

"We did not request any warships from any party," U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said, hours after the U.S. military announced it was sending ships off Lebanon.

He insisted the U.S. ships would cruise off the coast, not in Lebanese territorial waters.

Saniora, who has been accused by the opposition of following U.S. policy, spoke in front of Arab diplomats at government headquarters in Beirut after his Hezbollah opponents called the U.S. deployment a threat to Lebanese sovereignty and independence.

The U.S. military said Thursday the Navy was sending at least three ships, including an amphibious assault ship, to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in a show of strength during a period of tensions with Syria and political uncertainty in Lebanon.

"We are facing an American threat against Lebanon," Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah said. "It is clear this threat and intimidation will not affect us," he said on local television.

Fadlallah also called on Saniora's government to reject the Navy deployment.

Hezbollah is leading the opposition seeking to topple the U.S.-backed government in Beirut. The group fought Israel in the 2006 war and is believed linked to Muslim militants who attacked U.S. forces and diplomats in Lebanon in 1983-84 during the Lebanese civil war, killing about 270.

Lebanon's long political crisis is increasingly viewed as taking on a regional scope: a proxy confrontation between the United States and some of its Arab allies against Iran and Syria — both staunch opponents of America's Mideast policies.

Neighboring Syria had yet to react on Friday, a weekend in that country.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday the deployment should not be viewed as threatening or in response to events in any single country in the volatile region.

But the decision appeared to be a not-too-subtle show of U.S. force as international frustration mounts over a long political deadlock in tiny, weak Lebanon. The United States blames Syria for the impasse, saying Syria has never given up its ambitions to control its smaller neighbor.

The presidential election in Lebanon has been delayed 15 times. Just this week the date was pushed back to March 11.

The opposition accuses the U.S. of scuttling any attempts to settle the political crisis over the president and government that has dragged on for the last 15 months. The majority has accused the opposition of doing the bidding of Syria and Iran.

Tensions in Lebanon have sharpened after the assassination in Syria of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was wanted by the United States for a plane hijacking and was suspected of attacks against American targets in Lebanon as well as Israeli and Jewish interests abroad.

Hezbollah has accused Israel, promising retaliation, and Israel has put its forces along the Lebanese border on alert.

Sheik Afif Naboulsi, a Shiite cleric close to Hezbollah, scoffed at the U.S. Navy deployment.

"We say to the Americans: We will not be afraid of your threats, and we won't hand over the country to you to use it to pressure Syria," he said at a Friday sermon in southern Lebanon.

In 1983, at the height of U.S. intervention in Lebanon, about 17 ships — two aircraft carrier battle groups and two mammoth battleships — patrolled the Lebanese coastline with a Marine contingent deployed at Beirut airport.

A suicide bombing destroyed the Marine base in October 1983, killing 241 American service personnel, and a U.S. Embassy building was destroyed by another suicide bomber during that period. U.S. warships also were involved in shelling anti-government Muslim militia positions.

Lebanese territorial waters are now patrolled by Lebanon's navy and a United Nations Naval Task Force that is assisting Lebanese authorities under the U.N. resolution that halted the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The last time U.S. ships came to Lebanon was during the 34-day conflict in 2006, with warships taking part in the evacuation of Americans.