Lebanon's Pro-Western Premier Seeks Aid

By JAMEY KEATEN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 6:40 PM

PARIS -- Lebanon's embattled pro-Western prime minister pleaded for international aid Wednesday to stave off financial ruin in his war-scarred country and counter interference from Iran, Syria and their Lebanese allies. The United States said it would offer $770 millon.

Fuad Saniora said he expected a donors conference Thursday in Paris to provide "very significant" financial support from Arab states and Western countries to help Lebanon become a haven of stability in the Middle East.

The meeting comes as Saniora's U.S.-backed government is locked in confrontation with Iranian-backed Hezbollah and other Lebanese foes while struggling under mountains of debt and facing the task of rebuilding following the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah.

It is the third Paris donor conference on Lebanon since 1998.

Experts predict the funds offered _ in the form of debt relief, low-cost loans and aid _ will likely total $4 billion to $7 billion. That compares to Lebanon's $40 billion of state debt, equivalent to about 185 percent of its annual economic output.

Although they insist the aid will be for all of Lebanon _ not just for one man or his government _ the U.S. and other donor nations back Saniora and say Lebanon must be defended from meddling by Iran and neighboring Syria, which occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years until 2005.

"Not helping Lebanon will be much more expensive than helping it," Saniora told reporters after meeting with French President Jacques Chirac to prepare for the meeting, which is expected to draw about 30 foreign ministers and representatives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Union.

Already Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. will offer the Lebanese government nearly $770 million, a tripling of U.S. aid announced a day after deadly protests in Beirut underscored the country's deep political and sectarian divisions.

The donation, which must be approved by Congress, would include $220 million in military aid for Saniora's government. The money could buy small arms, ammunition, spare parts and Humvees, U.S. officials said.

Host France announced plans for a $650 million loan at "very advantageous" terms, while the EU pledged $522 million in aid and loans.

Rice was expected to meet early Thursday with Saniora, who is under mounting pressure at home. Pro- and anti-government factions clashed for a second day on the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Wednesday _ a day after three people died and 173 others were injured in violence nationwide.

"The government of Lebanon may be stressed by what's going on, but I believe they are strong and will weather this crisis," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, the State Department's top Middle East diplomat, told reporters in Paris.

Hezbollah gained new support at home from its 34-day war with Israel and is thought to have doled out millions of dollars in aid to people in areas devastated by fighting. Western nations hope to counter that influence by pouring in even more money.

No Hezbollah representatives were invited to the Paris conference because its six ministers quit Saniora's Cabinet last year. France and other donors said they are dealing only with the elected Lebanese government, and it is up to Saniora to work with his domestic opponents.

But the worsening political turmoil has raised concerns that Saniora's government may be too paralyzed to fully rebuild even with newly injected funds. Many parts of southern Lebanon _ a Hezbollah stronghold _ remain a wasteland five months after the war despite pledges from the government, Hezbollah and the world to help.

The new aid will come with conditions _ mainly assurances that Saniora's government make good on economic and structural reforms announced this month, which have infuriated labor unions and Hezbollah supporters.

Saniora's critics contend the donors will only worsen Lebanon's debt.


© 2007 The Associated Press