- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

The United States and its allies are rushing billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Lebanon while Iran provides cash through its proxy, Hezbollah, in a race to establish long-term political influence among the country’s war-ravaged Shi’ite communities.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are sending $2 billion, said a Lebanese source close to the majority party in government, and the United States has publicly promised $50 million in humanitarian assistance. That sum will likely be increased at an international pledging conference later this month.

Hezbollah, which successfully held off the Israeli military in the monthlong war that ended Monday, is already working with residents of the south to rebuild homes and businesses destroyed in the conflict.

“This is an opportunity to do more than just rebuild, but to help to shape Lebanon’s future, and probably that is the biggest challenge,” said Rick Barton, who studies post-conflict reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Lebanese troops yesterday began marching across the Litani River to reassert control over the region for the first time in decades. But negotiations for a 15,000-member United Nations-sanctioned international force to bolster their efforts made little progress.

The Israeli army said it had begun “transferring responsibility” over captured territory in a staged process that was “conditional on the reinforcement of UNIFIL and the ability of the Lebanese army to take effective control of the area,” according to Reuters news agency.

UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, is to be substantially reinforced and rearmed.

But France, which has offered to lead the international effort, yesterday approved an initial contingent of only 200 troops to join the 2,000 U.N. soldiers already in the country.

Hezbollah leaders have boasted that Iran will finance their reconstruction program, which could cost several billion dollars. That, said Kamal Nawash of the Free Muslims Coalition, would make Hezbollah even more influential in Lebanon than it is now.

“If they don’t rebuild Lebanon, they will be destroyed. They told their supporters from the first day of the war, ‘don’t worry, we will rebuild,’ and the people of Lebanon expect Hezbollah to come through,” said Mr. Nawash, whose Washington-based think tank focuses on the Middle East and Muslim world.

“This is also a test of how willing Iran is to establish this relationship and how dedicated they are to Hezbollah’s presence. If they are, Hezbollah will live to fight another day,” Mr. Nawash said.

Rebuilding the country quickly will also be a test for the Lebanese government.

“It is very important to us who rebuilds the south; it is very important that the government is seen as the main actor and the main player in the south,” said a Lebanese source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A donors’ conference for Lebanon is expected to convene at the end of the month in Sweden to organize a flow of funds to the country that will complement the money already promised.

“I think people now will not let Lebanon fall through the cracks; they want to do something to help Lebanon stand on its feet,” said the source.

Assistant Administrator Michael Hess said the U.S. Agency for International Development was working closely with Beirut to deliver humanitarian assistance and would then move into the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases.

“We have to assess as we go along,” said Mr. Hess, adding that rebuilding was “going to take a long time, we are talking years.”

Some analysts called for a greater sense of urgency.

“Hezbollah engineers are already on the ground doing the preliminary work on rebuilding,” said David Schenker, a senior fellow on Arab politics at the Washington Institute. “The key issue here is speed.”

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