By Toby Harnden, US Editor The Telegraph
Last Updated: 1:47am GMT 10/01/2007
The Central Intelligence Agency has been authorised to take covert action against Hizbollah as part of a secret plan by President George W. Bush to help the Lebanese government prevent the spread of Iranian influence. Senators and congressmen have been briefed on the classified "non-lethal presidential finding" that allows the CIA to provide financial and logistical support to the prime minister, Fouad Siniora.
The finding was signed by Mr Bush before Christmas after discussions between his aides and Saudi Arabian officials. Details of its existence, known only to a small circle of White House officials, intelligence officials and members of Congress, have been passed to The Daily Telegraph.
It authorises the CIA and other US intelligence agencies to fund anti-Hizbollah groups in Lebanon and pay for activists who support the Siniora government. The secrecy of the finding means that US involvement in the activities is officially deniable.
The Bush administration hopes Mr Siniora's government, severely weakened after its war with Israel last year, will become a bulwark against the growing power of the Shia sect of Islam, championed by Iran and Syria, since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Mr Bush's move is at the centre of a fresh drive by America, supported by the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt as well as Israel, to stop Iranian hegemony in the Middle East emerging from the collapse of Iraq.
The finding, drawn up at the White House by National Security Council (NSC) officials, is a sign of Mr Bush's growing alarm at the threat posed by Iran, which has infiltrated the Iraqi government and is training Shia insurgents as well as supplying them with roadside bombs.
A former US government official said: "Siniora's under siege there and we are always looking for ways to help allies. As Richard Armitage [a former deputy US secretary of state] said, Hizbollah is the A-team of terrorism and certainly Iran and Syria have not let up in their support of the group."
Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, is understood to have been closely involved in the decision to prop up Mr Siniora's administration and the Israeli government, which views Iran as its chief enemy, has also been supportive.
"There's a feeling both in Jerusalem and in Riyadh that the anti-Sunni tilt in the region has gone too far," said an intelligence source. "By removing Saddam, we've shifted things in favour of the Shia and this is a counter-balancing exercise.
Prince Bandar, now King Abdullah's national security adviser, made several trips to Washington and held meetings with Elliot Abrams, the senior Middle East official on the NSC.
Prince Turki al-Faisal resigned abruptly as ambassador to Washington last month. Intelligence sources said that a principal reason for this was his belief he had been undermined by Prince Bandar, who had not told him of the Lebanon plan or even that he was visiting Washington.
As a quid pro quo to the Sunni Arab states, Mr Bush and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, have agreed to work harder to re-start negotiations about a peace deal with the Palestinians.
According to the Swoop website (theswoop.net), which contains briefings on diplomatic and intelligence matters: "US officials point to the Israeli release of some tax monies owed to the Palestinian Authority as the first fruits of this approach.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former clandestine CIA officer, said that such a finding would involve "various steps and types of non-military activity" agreed to by the Lebanese. "It takes two to tango. You're only those things that the Lebanese themselves would want you to do," he said.
Bush administration officials have spoken of their desire to promote "mainstream" Arab states and have even spoken of the existence of a "Sunni crescent" in the Middle East. But there is tension between this policy and the support for Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-led government in Iraq, which has links to Shia death squads and Iran.
"The administration is reaping its own whirlwind after Iraq," said the intelligence source. "For 50 years the US preferred stability over legitimacy in the Middle East and now it's got neither. It's a situation replete with ironies."
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