Lebanese defense minister says US military aid shouldn't be tied to conditions on Israel

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon will reject any American military assistance to the nation's army if it comes with conditions that the weapons not be used against Israel, the defense minister said Wednesday.

Elias Murr was commenting on a decision by a U.S. congressman to suspend $100 million worth of aid over concerns the weapons could be turned on Israel and that Hezbollah may have influence over the Lebanese army.

"If someone would like to help the army without restrictions or conditions, he is welcome. But those who want to help the army on condition that it doesn't protect its territory, people and border from Israel, should keep their money — or give it to Israel instead," Murr said. "We will confront (Israel) with the capabilities that we have."

The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Howard Berman, said he suspended U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces on Aug. 2 amid the growing concern in Congress. He said those concerns were reinforced a day later when the armies of Lebanon and Israel fought along their border, killing two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and a senior Israeli officer.

Berman, a Democrat from California and a strong supporter of Israel, used his legislative prerogative to place a temporary hold on the money, and it was not clear how long the suspension would last.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday he was not aware of plans to reevaluate U.S. military cooperation with Lebanon, which he said "contributes to stability in the region."

Murr said the Lebanese soldier who opened fire across the border with Israel last week was acting on orders.

"If the Congressman wants to stop (the aid) it's up to him," Murr told reporters Wednesday at the Defense Ministry in Yarze near Beirut.

Since 2006, the United States has provided over $720 million in military aid, including assault rifles, Humvees, missile and grenade launchers and night vision goggles, in addition to training.

Lebanon is not entirely dependent on the U.S. assistance and has turned to other countries, including Russia and Arab nations, for assistance in the past.

Lebanon's 60,000-strong military has long been poorly equipped and has virtually no air force — about 30 unarmed helicopters and several 1950s-era British-made Hawker Hunter jets — and no effective air defense system. Israel routinely flies reconnaissance missions over Lebanon unchallenged.

After last week's confrontation, President Michel Suleiman announced he was beginning a campaign to better arm the military — even calling on Lebanese expatriates to donate money for their country's army.

Hezbollah did not take part in the most recent fighting, and the confrontation showed a rare willingness by the Lebanese military to assert itself in a region long considered Hezbollah territory.

The Lebanese army drew praise in the country for standing up to Israel's powerful military — a role the army has more or less deferred to Hezbollah in the past. But politicians in Israel and the United States charge that Hezbollah might have infiltrated the army or are trying to influence it.

The Aug. 3 clash — the most serious fighting since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war — began after an Israeli soldier tried to remove a tree along the border, something the military has done in the past to improve its sight lines into Lebanon.

But both sides claimed the tree was in their territory, and Lebanon said it opened fire after Israel refused entreaties to stop. The United Nations later determined the tree was on the Israeli side.