US steps up rhetoric against Hezbollah
WASHINGTON - The United States stepped up its rhetoric against Hezbollah on Tuesday, slapping rewards on two commanders and urging allies to blacklist the Lebanese armed group.
President Donald Trump is due to unveil a new strategy to counter Iran later this week, but in the meantime senior officials singled out Tehran's ally in Syria and Lebanon.
Washington and the Lebanese movement have been foes since 1983, when the group was blamed by for deadly suicide bombings against its embassy and a US barracks in Beirut.
Since then Hezbollah has become a powerful military force in the region and been implicated in several international attacks -- but also a fixture in Lebanese politics.
Some US allies impose sanctions on Hezbollah's "military wing" while tolerating the group's role as a political party representing many Lebanese Shiites in government.
But US counterterrorism chief Nicholas Rasmussen and ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism Nathan Sales said that Washington would never accept this distinction.
"Countering Hezbollah is a top priority for the Trump administration," Sales told reporters, announcing the rewards for two alleged top-level Hezbollah operatives.
Sales said the State Department would pay $7 million for information that leads to Talal Hamiyah, alleged head of Hezbollah's "External Security Organization."
A further $5 million is on offer for leads on Fuad Shukr, "a senior military commander" of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
US officials believe Shukr was born in 1962, either in Beirut or the Bekaa Valley.
Talal Hamiyah's US Treasury terror blacklist designation lists four possible dates of birth between November 1952 and March 1960, and three potential Lebanese birthplaces.
It describes his unit as the ESO as "the Hezbollah element responsible for the planning, coordination, and execution of terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon."
"These are the first Hezbollah-related rewards under the Rewards for Justice Program in a decade," Sales said.
"The United States and our allies will aggressively target its terrorism infrastructure and financial support networks," he vowed, hailing support from US friends.
But he warned that "more work needs to be done."
"Some countries have chosen to designate only Hezbollah's military wing, leaving its so-called 'political wing' untouched. But that is a false distinction," he said.
"Make no mistake: Hezbollah has no political wing. It is a single organization, a terrorist organization, and it is rotten to its core," he argued.
The officials' comments will be seen as setting the tone ahead of Trump's announcement of his new Iran strategy, which will be aimed at rolling back Tehran's influence.
Hezbollah -- an influential force in Lebanon and key ally to Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime -- will be a target.
US Arab friends such as Saudi Arabia are pushing for a tougher line on Tehran, and close ally Israel is always alert to Hezbollah's presence across its northern border.