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LEBANON: U.S.S. Cole heads toward Lebanese coast

February 29, 2008 |  9:39 am

Usscole

Is the U.S. beating the war drums in Lebanon? U.S. officials revealed Thursday the unexpected deployment of American warships off the Lebanese coast "to bolster stability" in the region. But in Lebanon, the move was slammed as a military threat to the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and its backers, Syria and Iran.

According to media reports, the famous U.S.S. Cole was heading toward Lebanese waters from Malta. The stated reason was said to be growing concerns in Washington over the political deadlock in Lebanon and Syria's meddling in Lebanese internal affairs.

"The presence is important. It isn't meant to send any stronger signals than that but in fact it does signal that we're engaged, we're going to be in the vicinity," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.

Hezbollah denounced the American decision as a "failing attempt by the U.S. administration to support its [Lebanese] allies with its military apparel." Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah told one local newspaper that this "proved the real confrontation [in Lebanon] is with decision makers in Washington."

A drawn-out political crisis has pitted the U.S.-backed Lebanese government against the Hezbollah-led opposition supported by Iran and Syria. As a result, the country has been without a president for the past three months. Tensions between the two feuding factions are rising on the streets.

Local pro-Hezbollah newspapers attacked the U.S. show of force. One virulent headline talked about "a direct military threat" and one editorial slammed the Bush administration for repeating its "humiliating" deployment of warships along the Lebanese coast in 1982. The U.S. pulled out its troops then from Lebanon after deadly attacks against its embassy and its Marine barracks in Beirut.

"It is wishful thinking if the US thinks that the Lebanese people will adore this exhibition of military force," wrote a French-Lebanese blogger at Les Politiques.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tried to diffuse the impact of the U.S. move. He told reporters that "there are no foreign warships in Lebanese waters," adding that the government did not request any military support.

Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: U.S.S. Cole sails the sea. Credit: Ship website

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