BEIRUT, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Lebanon must cut Iran-backed Hezbollah from the financial sector, a U.S. official on combating illicit finance said on Tuesday, two weeks after Washington began a new push to disrupt the militant group’s global financing routes.
On a two-day visit to Lebanon, the U.S. Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea “urged Lebanon to take every possible measure to ensure (Hezbollah) is not part of the financial sector”.
Billingslea also “stressed the importance of countering Iranian malign activity in Lebanon,” a statement from the United States embassy in Lebanon said.
The Iran-backed, Shi’ite Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist group by Washington, but sits in Lebanon’s delicate national unity government.
U.S. officials say Hezbollah is funded not just by Iran but by global networks of people, businesses and money laundering operations.
The U.S. Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Acts of 2015 and 2017 aimed to sever the group’s funding routes and a number of people linked to Hezbollah are on sanctions lists.
The United States has had to balance its targeting of Hezbollah funding routes with the need to maintain Lebanon’s stability. Lebanese banking and political authorities have lobbied Washington to make sure its anti-Hezbollah measures do not destroy the banking system underpinning the economy.
In his meetings with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and other banking and political figures, Billingslea said the U.S. government was committed to work with Lebanon to protect its financial system and support a “strong, stable, and prosperous Lebanon”.
Billingslea also said Washington would help Lebanon protect its financial system from Islamic State and other militants.
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration set up a team to reinvigorate U.S. investigations into Hezbollah-linked drug trafficking.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah last week denied any involvement in drug trafficking and said Hezbollah had a very clear religious and moral stance which forbids drugs and drug trading. (Reporting by Lisa Barrington; editing by Grant McCool)