Tillerson Says Hizbullah Part of Political Process in Lebanon
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday conceded that Iran-backed Hizbullah is part of the "political process" in Lebanon, appearing to soften Washington's tone ahead of his Thursday visit to the country.
"We support a free, democratic Lebanon free of influence of others, and we know that Lebanese Hizbullah is influenced by Iran. This is influence that we think is unhelpful in Lebanon’s long-term future," Tillerson said at a press conference in Jordan.
"We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon," he added.
Tillerson also called on Iran, Hizbullah's regional backer, to withdraw its forces and militias from Syria.
Hizbullah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad's forces against an Islamist-led uprising.
Hizbullah -- the only faction to have retained a huge arsenal of weapons after Lebanon's civil war -- is a member of the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Despite being branded a "terrorist" organization by the United States and targeted with economic sanctions, Hizbullah has risen to play a decisive role in regional conflicts including Syria.
The U.S. Justice Department in January announced the creation of a special task force to investigate what it called "narcoterrorism" by the powerful movement.
The United States levied sanctions in early February against six individuals and seven business with alleged links to Hizbullah financier Adham Tabaja.
The group's influence was last year at the heart of a political crisis in Lebanon that saw Hariri quit -- and then later rescind his resignation -- amid a tug-of-war between regional titans Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In the wake of the crisis Lebanon's political players -- including Hizbullah -- agreed to stick to the country's official policy of "disassociation" to stay out of regional conflicts.
Tillerson is due to meet Lebanon's political leadership Thursday as part of a tour of the Middle East.