US slaps sanctions on two Lebanese ex-ministers over Hezbollah

Lebanese politician Ali Hassan Khalil (left), who has been slapped with sanctions by the United States, is seen on a 2008 visit to Damascus with Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri
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The United States on Tuesday slapped sanctions on two former Lebanese ministers for alleged corruption and support of Hezbollah, vowing to isolate the pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim militia and political party.

The Treasury Department targeted former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former transport minister Yusef Fenianos, meaning that any assets they hold in the United States will be blocked and any transactions with them liable to criminal penalties.

But after internal debate, the United States stopped short of targeting any current officials in the strategically sensitive nation torn by economic crisis, political protests and the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut that killed nearly 200 people.

"The United States supports the Lebanese people's call for reform, and we will use all available authorities to promote accountability for Lebanese leaders who have failed their people," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

"Hezbollah depends on Lebanon's corrupt political system for survival," Pompeo said.

"Anyone helping to advance Hezbollah's political or economic interests is further eroding what remains of effective governance and facilitating financing for terrorism."

The action comes as the United States, as well as former colonial power France, press for a new government in Lebanon to push urgent reforms.

But while France regards Hezbollah pragmatically, recognizing its constituency among Shiites in Lebanon, Washington has stepped up its campaign against the movement violently opposed to Israel.

Khalil, part of the Shiite party Amal, served as finance minister from 2014 until April this year when a new technocratic cabinet took over amid street protests in which he was frequently accused of graft.

The Treasury Department said that Khalil, who has also served as health minister, helped direct funds to Hezbollah institutions to evade US sanctions.

Fenianos, according to the Treasury Department, received "hundreds of thousands of dollars" from Hezbollah in return for political favors.

It said he also provided sensitive documents to Hezbollah on a special UN tribunal which found a member of the movement guilty over the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafic Hariri.

The United States chose not to target prominent Lebanese who have been denounced in recent protests, including central bank governor Riad Salameh.

Asked if further action was planned, a US official said Tuesday's sanctions "should serve as a warning that the United States will not hesitate to sanction any individual or entity that supports and enables Hezbollah's terrorist and illicit activities."