BEIRUT — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Sunday with Lebanon's president on a stop in Beirut ahead of a critical election that could see a pro-U.S. government ousted by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies.
Clinton arrived unannounced in Lebanon a day after a similarly secret trip to Iraq to show support for the country's fragile democracy before the June 7 vote. Hezbollah is gaining strength and some fear turmoil if it wins enough votes to play a dominant role in a coalition.
A strong showing by the militant Shiite Muslim group might also see its sponsors Iran and Syria gaining influence in the region and harming Arab-Israeli peace efforts. The U.S. and Israel regard Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, although it plays a role in Lebanon's current government.
"The people of Lebanon must be able to choose their own representatives in open and fair elections without the specter of violence or intimidation and free of outside interference," Clinton said in a brief statement given to reporters aboard her plane. "We join the international community in supporting the Lebanese government's efforts to achieve that goal."
"Beyond the elections we will continue to support the voices of moderation in Lebanon and the responsible institutions of the Lebanese state they are working hard to build. Our ongoing support for the Lebanese armed forces remains a pillar of our bilateral cooperation," she said.
The United States has provided $1 billion in aid since 2006, including $410 million in security assistance to the military and the police.
It was Clinton's first trip to the country, one of the most volatile in the Middle East.
Prior to Clinton's visit, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon had already expressed concern about the election, and Hezbollah's opponents warn the consequence may be the West isolating the country and Washington reducing millions in aid.
Hezbollah was skeptical about Clinton's visit and spokesman Ibrahim Mussawi said it could even have a negative impact on the pro-U.S. factions in the country.
Speaking on the group's Al-Manar TV after Clinton arrived, Mussawi said it was too early to tell whether the Obama administration has reassessed its policy, but he added that American "interference in the past was never positive."
He also criticized what he termed a "double standard and deception" when the U.S. calls for Islamic factions to participate in elections then refuses to accept the results if they win.
The Obama administration is urging free and fair elections but is treading carefully. The Bush administration encouraged the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and then saw the radical Hamas movement win handily and badly damage efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Reflecting that concern, Clinton met during her brief stay with just one senior official, President Michel Suleiman. She was not expected to see other politicians who will be candidates in the election, like the pro-Western Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
U.S. officials say another reason she's coming is to reassure the Lebanese that the outreach to Syria and the attempts to engage Iran are not being done at the expense of U.S. support for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence.
U.S. officials say her meeting with Suleiman only is because the U.S. doesn't want to be seen as taking sides in the elections. Suleiman is considered a consensus leader and neutral in the political struggle.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says the group knows that trying to dominate Lebanon's politics would destabilize the country. In the past four years, Lebanon has nearly tumbled into a repeat of the 1975-90 civil war as the pro-Syrian and pro-U.S. camps struggled for the upper hand.
Hezbollah has taken the strategy of a low-key election campaign with a moderate message, aiming to show that a victory by its coalition should not scare anyone.
Nasrallah has even said that if the coalition wins, it would invite its opponents to join in a national unity government to ensure stability.