CAIRO (AP) — The Arab League on Friday formally branded Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group a terrorist organization, a move that raises concerns of deepening divisions among Arab countries and ramps up the pressure on the Shiite group, which is fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
The decision came during a foreign ministers' meeting of the Arab League at the organization's seat in Cairo, the Egyptian state MENA news agency reported. It came just a day after the league elected veteran Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Aboul-Gheit as its new chief.
The move aligns the 22-member league firmly behind Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led bloc of six Gulf Arab nations, which made the same formal branding against Hezbollah on March 2. It also brings the league in line with the United States, which is closely allied with the Gulf states and has long considered Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization. The European Union only lists the military wing of Hezbollah on its terrorist blacklist.
In Cairo, Saudi Ambassador Ahmed Qattan, told the satellite TV station Al Arabiya that the vote was not unanimous as Lebanon and Iraq abstained.
Earlier in the day, the Saudi delegation stormed out of a league meeting in protest over a speech by Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari hailing Hezbollah and Shiite militias as "resistant movements."
"I only described Hezbollah as a resistant movement and rejected accusations against the Popular Mobilization Forces (a Shiite Iraqi group) and other resistant movements," al-Jaafari told the state daily Al-Ahram.
The decision by the Arab League is a significant blow to Hezbollah and it is also likely to further aggravate tensions in Lebanon, undermining the country's delicate political balance amid fierce political infighting between groups loyal to Hezbollah and Saudi-backed factions.
The league's decision also reflects deep regional divisions between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite powerhouse Iran, Hezbollah's patron. Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Iran earlier this year after protesters angry over the kingdom's execution of influential Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and another diplomatic mission in Iran.
In addition to diplomatic pressures, Saudi Arabia has just finished a three-week long counter-terrorism drill dubbed "Northern Thunder" that included 20 participating countries, in what observers say was a show of force by the kingdom against its foes. It also sent a strategic message to Iran, and extremist Sunni groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
The kingdom has taken other punitive measures against Lebanon, including cutting $4 billion in aid to Lebanese security forces and urging its citizens to leave Lebanon — a blow to the tiny nation's tourism industry — in retaliation for Lebanon's siding with Iran amid the Sunni kingdom's spat with the Shiite power.
The GCC's and Arab League's decisions underline the steep price that Hezbollah's very public and bloody foray into Syria's civil war has had. Once lauded in the Arab world as a heroic resistance movement that stood up to Israel, Hezbollah has seen its popularity plummet among Sunni Muslims because of its staunch support for Assad.
In Lebanon, the main political divide pits a Sunni-led coalition against another led by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which includes both political and military wings. The Mediterranean country has weathered a string of militant attacks in recent years linked to the war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon's Foreign Ministry Gibran Bassil, speaking to reporters after the meeting in Cairo, said labeling Hezbollah as a terrorist organization goes against the Arab treaty for combating terrorism, which distinguishes between terrorism and resistance. He said Lebanon asked that the word "terrorist" be struck from the records of the meeting as if did not happen.
"Hezbollah is a Lebanese party that enjoys broad representation in the parliament and Cabinet ... Naturally we cannot accept that Hezbollah be described as a terrorist organization," he said.
There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah. On its main evening newscast, the group's Al-Manar TV reported on al-Jaafari's speech at the Arab League meeting without commenting on the league designation against Hezbollah.
Hours before the GCC decision, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a televised speech in which he harshly criticized Saudi Arabia for its punitive measures against Lebanon.
He repeated his accusations that the kingdom was directly responsible for some car bombings in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and denounced Saudi "massacres" in Yemen, where the kingdom is leading a U.S.-backed coalition of Arab states targeting Iran-supported Shiite rebels.
"Who gives Saudi Arabia the right to punish Lebanon and its army and Lebanese people living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf just because Hezbollah is speaking out? We urge Riyadh to settle accounts with Hezbollah and not all the Lebanese," he said.
He also accused Saudi Arabia of seeking to cause strife between Sunnis and Shiites everywhere in the world and said its execution of al-Nimr in January came in that context.
Associated Press Writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.