US Congress votes to sanction banks financing Hezbollah

The US House of Representatives voted unanimously December 16 to impose tough new sanctions on banks that knowingly do business with the Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

Washington (AFP) - The US House of Representatives voted unanimously Wednesday to impose tough new sanctions on banks that knowingly do business with the Lebanon-based Shiite militant movement Hezbollah.

The bill targeting the Iran-backed group, which Washington considers a terrorist organization, now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature.

The legislation also targets Hezbollah's television channel Al-Manar by aiming to cut the broadcast of satellite operators that air the channel's programming.

The House adopted the measure 422 to 0, following a unanimous vote in the Senate on November 17.

Obama will sign the legislation, a senior administration official told AFP, adding that the administration has worked with Congress for years "to intensify the pressure against the Hezbollah terrorist organization."

The new rules direct the president to prescribe punishing regulations against financial institutions that conduct transactions with Hezbollah or otherwise launder funds for the organization.

It also requires the administration to present to Congress a series of reports highlighting the group's narcotics trafficking, transnational crime, and operations of international groups linked to Hezbollah, especially in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The administration will list those particular countries that support Hezbollah, or in which the group maintains a key logistical base.

"Hezbollah has had to cast a wide net because most Lebanese banks have not wanted to do business with them," a congressional expert on the legislation told AFP.

"There is no question that Hezbollah is stronger than ever," said Republican congresswoman Jackie Walorski, who described the group as a dangerous enemy to Israel and one that has amassed more than 150,000 rockets and missiles.

The US State Department also accuses the group of supporting President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

The United States has labeled Hezbollah a global terrorist group since 1995, accusing it of a long list of violent attacks including the bombing of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983.

Hezbollah's goal is "to undermine Lebanese political independence and support Iran's dangerous goals," said the House Foreign Affairs Committee's top Democrat, Eliot Engel.

"We need to be one step ahead of them."

The group, he added, "has become a sophisticated and complex terrorist organization, and we need a response adequate to meet this challenge."

Senator Marco Rubio, who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and was a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said it was critical for the administration to immediately begin implementing the sanctions in order to rein in Hezbollah violence.

"America and our allies in the Middle East will be safer when we take these steps to weaken Hezbollah and, by extension, their Iranian masters," he said.

Washington-based pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC welcomed passage of the bill, saying it "provides an important tool against Iranian aggression in the region."

Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, a regional rival to Iran, last month widened its own sanctions against Hezbollah, adding 12 names to a blacklist of individuals and firms whose assets in the kingdom will be frozen.