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WASHINGTON – The State Department will have to keep a closer eye on Hezbollah, a militant and political network with ties to Iran and a presence as close as Toronto, under bipartisan legislation sponsored by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and approved by Congress this week.

The bill received its final approval in a 386-6 House vote late Tuesday. The measure, which now goes to President Obama for his signature, requires the State Department to assess Hezbollah’s presence in the Western Hemisphere and develop a strategy to counter any threat the group may pose.

The U.S., Canada, Israel and other countries consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization.

Higgins became concerned about Hezbollah’s North American presence after a House hearing earlier this year, in which witnesses testified that the group is active in 14 North American cities, including Toronto. And while that presence appears limited to fundraising at this point, Higgins stressed there is still a reason to be concerned.

“Does Hezbollah use Buffalo as a pathway to its other operations in the U.S.?” he asked. “Or do they use Buffalo as a pathway to Canada?”

Higgins said he was surprised that State Department officials did not already have a strategy to counter Hezbollah’s North American presence, which is why he offered the bill along with Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.

The bill requires the State Department to issue classified reports on its monitoring of Hezbollah, along with a public summary.

“We’ve learned since 9/11 that we must remain vigilant about not only threats to our nation from outside but threats present and assimilated within the fabric of our communities seeking to do harm to America and Americans,” said Higgins, a member of the House committees on Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs.

Duncan agreed, saying he fears that Hezbollah could act on behalf of Iran in the U.S., which is why the bill is called the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act.”

“One of the ways we can honor those who lost their lives during the War on Terror is to be vigilant in protecting against growing threats here at home,” Duncan said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.