U.S. Readies Security Aid Package To Help Lebanon Counter Hezbollah

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

The United States is preparing a package of almost $500 million in aid for Lebanon's military and police to help strengthen the security forces, part of almost $1 billion in total U.S. assistance to help the beleaguered Lebanese government, according to U.S. officials.

The package is part of an effort by the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to shore up the Lebanese security forces so they can eventually extend their control over the entire country for the first time since civil war erupted there in 1975. It is also designed to strengthen the government's hand over the influence of Hezbollah, Lebanon's last militia and a force often better-equipped than the country's army, the sources said.

After Iraq, Lebanon has become the primary battleground for influence between the United States and Iran.

Tehran is still smuggling arms into Lebanon across the Syrian border in violation of U.N. resolutions, although the shipments to its Hezbollah allies appear to have diminished somewhat since before the war with Israel last summer, U.S. officials say.

The U.S. aid package is being prepared even as a new report by the International Crisis Group, set to be released today, warns that the Middle Eastern country is at risk of "renewed collapse" unless domestic and international players work to achieve political compromise.

"Street politics have replaced institutional politics," said ICG analyst Patrick Haenni. "Civil war remains unlikely. But with heightened polarization, intensified [religious divisions] and heavy outside interference, it is again becoming thinkable."

Although U.S. officials say the final details have to be worked out, the aid package is likely to be divided about evenly among training, spare parts and ammunition. The leadership training will probably be done by contract workers rather than by the U.S. military. U.S. Army trainers attempted to retrain and reform the Lebanese army in the early 1980s, but they achieved limited results because of sectarian divisions and other problems in the military.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told editors and reporters at The Washington Post last week that strengthening the Lebanese armed forces is a major priority of the United States and the region's "mainstream" Arabs. Stability, particularly along the southern border with Israel, has been dependent on about 15,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops, most of whom were deployed after the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel.

"Ultimately . . . one of the most important things that you can do is to strengthen the Lebanese armed forces not -- I think probably not to replace the United Nations forces for some time, but to be more capable themselves of defending the country and providing a stable platform," Rice told The Post. "Everybody understands that the future of Lebanon is very important."

Rice said the package will require further consultations with Congress to win funding. The other half of the $1 billion is likely to be for reconstruction through USAID as well as debt relief, U.S. officials said.

The aid increase is one of the largest outside Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. Until this year, U.S. aid for Lebanese security forces hovered around $2 million to $3 million a year, and training has been limited to 60 to 100 military officers, U.S. officials say. This year, it has increased to roughly $44 million.

The train-and-equip package includes about 300 Humvees that the United States has pledged to deliver by the spring, with up to another 700 Humvees coming during the year, the sources said.

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