Allies rally behind Lebanon with aid

Days after Beirut was engulfed in the destabilizing flames of Hizbullah protest, a remarkably successful French-led aid conference may bring some encouragement to fragile Lebanon. Nearly 40 nations and world leaders pledged a whopping $7.6 billion here Thursday in a show of solidarity.

Donors expressed a certain esprit – not only to help undo considerable destruction in the aftermath of Israel's military incursion last summer, but expressly to aid the morale of Lebanon's people and the besieged government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Mr. Siniora left Lebanon for Paris Tuesday amid burning tires and opposition anger, and Thursday, as he attended the conference, riots broke out at Beirut University.

The Paris conference, attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, offers an unusual model, diplomats here say. It represents a sort of quiet proxy by the international community in support of Lebanon's democratic government – by countering aid given to the opposition Hizbullah by its backers in Iran and Syria.

Ms. Rice arrived on the heels of a State of the Union speech specifically pointing to Lebanon as a state crucial to Middle East peace. Rice pledged $770 million, and the French government of Jacques Chirac will give $650 million.

Mr. Chirac, whose country has historic ties with Lebanon, and whose peacekeepers are deployed there, opened the conference by affirming international regard for Lebanon, saying the aid is intended for, "all Lebanese ... to strongly reaffirm our desire for a united Lebanon ... that is sovereign."

"In spite of the vitality of its people, Lebanon cannot meet the economic challenge ... on its own," Siniora told the assembled diplomats in Paris.

The French initiative for reconstruction has been strongly condemned by Hizbullah, whose Lebanon-based leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah this week described Chirac as the "spiritual godfather" of the current Lebanese government. The opposition daily Al Akhbar said the Paris event is not designed to help Lebanon but the "Western-controlled" Siniora government.

The destruction to Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hizbullah last summer is estimated at $4 to $7 billion. The war was especially destructive to Lebanon's infrastructure, and especially heartbreaking for a state that had nearly recovered from the strife of the 1980s that made the scenic country a nondestination for tourists.

Following the assassination two years ago of popular former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw after 30 years of occupation. In recent months Siniora has pushed a controversial tribunal that could target Syrian influence in the assassination. Last November six pro-Syrian ministers resigned from the cabinet, and Siniora is facing strong internal opposition, culminating in Hizbullah-led riots in Beirut this week. Hizbullah is viewed as trying to overthow Siniora's Cabinet.

A considerable amount of aid, $1.1 billion, is coming from Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, which is not eager for Shiite-based Hizbullah to break up and reconfigure Lebanon.

French diplomats took a slightly different approach publicly. Aid to Lebanon "Should create a dynamic that favors stabilization in the region, and that will profit Lebanon and Syria," noted a French diplomat at the conference.

Whopping aid packages are usually given in the wake of natural disasters like the 2005 tsunami in southeast Asia, or after some kind of political resolution to a war or conflict. The Paris model offers aid in the middle of an unresolved political crisis, and Chirac was pushed to say earlier this week that he was not helping a single politician, and would support whichever leader was democratically elected in Lebanon.

The aid package is aimed at three main categories in Lebanon: Rebuilding and construction of infrastructure like roads, housing, and agriculture; helping with human necessities like food, fuel, and medicine; and bringing financial stability by use in debt relief, privatization in areas like mobile phones, tax reforms, and other commercial areas.

The latter focus is especially important. Lebanon's chief economic crippler is a $41 billion debt equal to 180 percent of its GDP.

The French role in rebuilding Lebanon has been substantial. Thursday's conference, informally titled "Paris 3," is the third in a series dating to February, 2001, when France raised €500 million in aid. A second meeting took place in November, 2002 raised €4.2 billion. But Thursday's fund-raiser has topped them all.

Along with aid from France, the US, and Saudi Arabia, other big-dollar donors in Paris include: the European Bank at $1.25 billion, the World Bank at $1 billion; the Jedda-based Islamic Development Bank at $250 million, and the British government at $48 million.

While Siniora has criticized Hizbullah, he also offered chastening comment to Israel Thursday for its military adventure in Lebanon last summer, saying that in retrospect, "war didn't bring Israel either security or peace."

As the donor conference drew to close Thursday, at least two students were shot dead and 35 others were wounded in street fighting in Beirut, between students loyal to the government and opposition supporters, a security source said.

Reuters reports were used in this story.

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