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U.S. naval move riles Hezbollah

Special to The Times

A U.S. decision to dispatch a warship toward the Lebanese coast was denounced Friday by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group Hezbollah.

Bush administration officials said that positioning the destroyer Cole from the island of Malta farther east toward Lebanon was an attempt to bolster security in the Levant, which was the site of a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

“The purpose of the U.S. Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean is a show of support for regional stability,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe told reporters in Washington.

Hezbollah, a vast political organization and militia, has angrily condemned the deployment of the Cole as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. It accused the U.S. of using military power to intimidate the group and its Syrian backers in Lebanon.

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A drawn-out political crisis pits the U.S.-backed Lebanese government against the Hezbollah-led opposition supported by Iran and Syria. The country has been without a president for three months despite international attempts to mediate a deal.

“The U.S. move proves that the real confrontation is with the real decision makers in Washington,” said Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah member of parliament.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined to link the deployment to events in Lebanon, but told reporters that he hoped “the Syrians would have gotten the hint that not only the United States but the rest of the international community wants them to get out of the business of interfering in Lebanon’s political system.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said his government had requested no U.S. military support.

“There are no foreign warships in Lebanese waters,” he told reporters after a meeting with the U.S. charge d’affaires in Beirut, Michele Sison. “There are only Lebanese maritime forces and the U.N. forces.”

The deployment of the warship follows recent threats by Hezbollah to retaliate against Israel for its alleged assassination of militant Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a Feb. 12 car bomb attack in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Many fear another war with Israel.

Fadlallah raised the specter of previous U.S. military involvement in Lebanon. The U.S. deployed warships off the Lebanese coast in 1982, when the American military supported Lebanese Christian factions against the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Lebanese allies.

The U.S. later pulled out of the country after hundreds of Marines and embassy personnel were killed in suicide bomb attacks.

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German warships are stationed off the Lebanese shore as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force deployed after Israel’s summer war in Lebanon in 2006. The Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, was sent from Malta on Tuesday. It was the target of a 2000 bombing by Al Qaeda in Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.

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Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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