Thursday, January 31, 2019

Billingslea gives warning to Hezbollah

Feb. 01, 2019 | 12:05 AM Osama Habib| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The United States will have a significant problem if Hezbollah exploits the position of the Health Ministry to funnel funds for organizations affiliated with it, a senior U.S. official warned Thursday. "If we see that Hezbollah exploits, and they will exploit whatever ministry they are given, to funnel money and other terrorist agendas then we have significant problems with that," Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing in the United States Department of the Treasury, told reporters at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

But Billingslea declined to say what measures the U.S. Treasury will take if it sees Hezbollah exploiting the position of the Health Ministry.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other political blocs agreed to give the Health Ministry to Hezbollah.

Billingslea visited President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, Minister of Finance Ali Hasan Khalil, Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, the Association of Banks in Lebanon and other officials to remind Lebanon that Washington is very serious about the sanctions on Hezbollah.

Billingslea also stressed that Washington's tough sanctions against Iran have drastically affected the finances of Hezbollah and complicated its operations.

"Our pressure on the Persians is having clear and obvious effect. We applied sanctions on Iran because they refuse to stop their terrorism and refuse to stop their missile launchers and funneling of their activities abroad. As a result of the domestic corruption in Tehran there is less and less money to go around. And as a result of that we are actually seeing that Hezbollah here is not getting the paychecks they once enjoyed from the Iranians," he added.

Billingslea said these sanctions are causing serious problems for Hezbollah's secretary-general Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and his people in Lebanon.

The U.S. official vehemently denied his visit to Lebanon was aimed at blocking the formation of the Lebanese government.

"Claims that we came here to expedite the veto on the formation of the government is absolutely false. There is a zero truth about that. This is a sovereign decision and I said this in the past. This is a sovereign decision by the elected Lebanese government. We believe that it is urgent the government to be formed because there are pressing economic and financial issues that needs to be addressed. It is critical that a series of reforms that tackles corruption be enacted," Billingslea said.

He underlined the importance to seriously tackle Lebanon's public debt which is very high to GDP ratio.

Billingslea also emphasized the importance of combating corruption in Lebanon in order to improve the country's record.

He also expressed some concern about the secret bank accounts in Lebanon. "Corruption has to be tackled in the context of a broader anti-corruption campaign that deals with issues of secret bank accounts. This is an area we feel that legislative reforms are needed, that there are no secret bank accounts anymore, and to ensure that the government has the ability to freeze and block [accounts] associated with illicit financial activities," he said.

He explained that secret bank accounts are fundamentally inconsistent with Financial Action Task Force standards.

But Billingslea declined to say if Washington advocates the lifting of banking secrecy in Lebanon.

He also praised the roles played by Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and Vice-Governor Mohammad Baasiri in enforcing anti-money laundering measures and combating terrorism financing.

Billingslea made it clear that the U.S. Treasury wants to see all Lebanese banks vigorously apply all resolutions and decisions related to money laundering and terrorism funding. He reiterated the U.S. Treasury does not distinguish between the so-called political and military wings of Hezbollah.

Billingslea called on the Lebanese authorities to tighten its control on the airport and ports to deprive Hezbollah from any source of illicit funding.

He declined to comment on the civil law suits filed by American citizens against a number of Lebanese banks, stressing that this is purely a civil lawsuit and does not involve the U.S. Treasury.

Billingslea insisted that Washington has zero intention of causing the collapse of the Lebanese pound under the pretext of combating Hezbollah. He also reassured that Washington has no intention of targeting Lebanese banks, even the Shiite-owned banks, as long as all of them are complying with combating terrorism funding and money laundering.

Billingslea repeated his accusation of Hezbollah's drug trading and other illicit activities in Lebanon and abroad.