By HUSSEIN DAKROUB
The Associated Press
Saturday, September 2, 2006; 5:30 PM
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Every day, a line of trucks as far as the eye can see carries rubble out of south Beirut. Front-loaders and bulldozers gouge away at vast mounds of concrete and twisted metal that were once homes.
Pledges of cash are pouring in to help Lebanon rebuild from the devastation of the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. But Lebanese aren't ready to begin putting up new houses _ they're still clearing away the ruins of the old.
Some 130,000 houses and apartments were destroyed or damaged during Israel's offensive, which leveled swaths of some villages in southern Lebanon and flattened much of the southern Beirut district known as the Dahiyah.
The homelessness of tens of thousands has created a huge humanitarian problem for the country.
But reconstruction has a political aspect as well: Hezbollah has begun distributing funds for people to rebuild, reinforcing support for the Shiite militant group, while Lebanon's government has yet to pass out any cash.
Prime Minister Fouad Saniora has earmarked $33,000 for each destroyed house and lesser amounts for damaged residences. But assessment teams have not been dispatched, and many people are skeptical the government will come through.
"So far, we have not seen any government official visiting our neighborhood. How can we have hope in any government assistance?" said Ali al-Raei, a Dahiyah resident who said he received $1,000 from Hezbollah to repair damage to his house.
Many people can't think of rebuilding until the ruins are cleared.
In Dahiyah, a Hezbollah stronghold and one of the most densely populated parts of Lebanon, the task is daunting. The smell of rotting food in devastated buildings fills the dusty air, while heavy equipment roars digging in the rubble.
Every day, some 470 dump trucks carry away wreckage to the Mediterranean coast. They dump it at an empty lot, much of it spilling into the sea, effectively creating new land. The Public Works Ministry says the site is temporary and the rubble will eventually be moved again.
Though little rebuilding has begun, some people who can afford it have started repairs on less-damaged homes.
"We have started ... painting walls, replacing broken glass, fixing water and electricity networks and rewiring telephone lines," said al-Raei, a 47-year-old father of five who lives in the Dahiyah neighborhood of Chiah, where dozens were killed by Israeli strikes.
He was busily plastering cement on his shrapnel-sprayed house near two buildings that he said were flattened by missiles Aug. 7.
Officials estimate it could take two months to clear away all the rubble. Then, says the Lebanese authority in charge of reconstruction, the country will need about $3.5 billion to repair buildings, bridges and other structures damaged in the fighting.
Nearly $1 billion in aid was just pledged at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. However, the money was earmarked for rebuilding infrastructure, clearing unexploded Israeli bombs and restoring social services. Another conference is planned later this year for long-term reconstruction aid.
After the Aug. 14 cease-fire, many of the hundreds of thousands who fled Dahiyah and southern Lebanon flooded back to towns and villages.
The lucky ones found their homes intact or only lightly damaged. Others have had to rent apartments, move in with relatives or set up tents next to destroyed homes.
In the southern town of Siddiqine on Saturday, people dug into deep craters to retrieve whatever possessions were left from their houses and shops before construction crews hired by the government removed the rubble.
As residents looked on, five yellow loaders scooped up the ruins of several houses and loaded them onto trucks for dumping at the edge of town. Others hauled off scrap metal to sell.
A crew of government workers strung electricity lines. But most wires are still down, and the town doesn't have power.
"There won't be any reconstruction here for a long time," said one resident, Murshad Ali Deeb, 34. "Hezbollah has given me $10,000, but who is going to reconstruct my house? It was worth many times that."
Many bridges across the country also were destroyed. In the eastern Bekaa Valley, large sewage pipes have been turned into an improvised span so cars can cross a narrow river.
High in the mountains, curious drivers stopped to view the damage to the country's largest viaduct road linking two mountains, then drove off along an old, narrow adjacent road.
On Saturday, Dahiyah residents, including veiled women, some wearing masks against the dust, inspected damage to their houses. A crane removed the collapsed upper floor of a 10-story building that was still standing.
Kassem Hammoud, 36, who lived near Hezbollah's main headquarters in Dahiyah, which was pulverized by Israeli missiles, had not received any money from the group but he is sure he will. His parents did.
"Had it not been for Hezbollah, the people who lost their homes would have been left on their own to find new homes," he said.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Siddiqine contributed to this report.