BEIRUT – BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's Western-backed prime minister has denied Israeli allegations that Hezbollah obtained Scud missiles, comparing them to the false American charges that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction ahead of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Saad Hariri appeared to be trying to ease tensions raised by Israeli President Shimon Peres' accusations that Syria supplied the Lebanese militant group with Scuds, which can carry a warhead of up to 1 ton and would be far larger than the biggest rockets previously in Hezbollah's arsenal.
Syria has denied the Israeli allegations and Hezbollah has neither confirmed nor denied them.
On Monday, the U.S. State Department summoned Syria's deputy chief of mission in Washington, Zouheir Jabbour, and accused Damascus of "provocative behavior" in supplying arms to the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah. A State Department statement did not specifically mention the alleged Syrian arms deals but alluded to the transfer to Hezbollah of Scud ballistic missiles.
Hariri compared the charges with U.S. allegations that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, which were the main rationale behind the U.S.-led war in Iraq but turned out to be false.
"The media suddenly started reporting that there are Scud missiles in Lebanon. Do you know what a Scud missile means? I believe it is as big as this room," Hariri said late Monday in Italy. His comments were reported by Lebanese media Tuesday. "Threats that Lebanon now has huge missiles are similar to what they used to say about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he added. "These are weapons that they did not find and they are still searching for."
"They are trying to repeat the same scenario with Lebanon," the prime minister said.
The allegations dealt a new setback to long-tense Syrian-U.S. relations, which had begun to improve after President Barack Obama took office last year. Earlier this year, Washington named a new ambassador to Damascus five years after withdrawing its top diplomat from Syria.
In Syria, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani repeated Damascus' denial and said Syria was surprised the United States was adopting "Israeli claims."
"This is regrettable and could deepen the gap between Damascus and Washington." Kanafani said, adding that Israel is trying to shuffle the cards in the region because of its foreign relations "dilemma" over its settlement policies in Palestinian territories.
Last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the U.S. had raised its concerns about reports of Syrian Scud missile transfers to Hezbollah with the highest levels of the Syrian government.
Hezbollah Minister Hussein Haj Hassan refused to confirm or deny Israeli allegations that the militant group has acquired Scud missiles. He said Friday the group was always arming itself but, "what we have is not their business."
Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has said his militants have more than 30,000 rockets and are capable of hitting anywhere in Israel. Those claims match Israeli intelligence assessments.
Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in 2006 that left some 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead. During the monthlong conflict, Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, including several medium-range missiles that for the first time hit Israel's third-largest city, Haifa.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Syria.