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U.S. to more than triple aid to Lebanon, Rice says

Thursday, January 25, 2007

PARIS -- The United States will offer nearly $770 million to help the fragile democratic government in Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday, 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 the beleaguered Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

The money could buy small arms, ammunition, spare parts and Humvees, U.S. officials said.

Lebanon remained tense Wednesday, a day after Hezbollah-led protesters clashed with government supporters across the country, killing three. What had been planned as a peaceful work-stoppage around the country turned into the worst violence since Shiite Hezbollah militants and their allies launched a campaign two months ago to oust the government.

"What you saw yesterday was irresponsible in the violence that erupted," Rice told reporters traveling with her to a 35-nation conference meant to help Lebanon recover from the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah and make a dent in its huge national debt.

The street protests and violence underscore the world's duty to help the democratic government survive in Lebanon, Rice said.

Saniora will also attend the donors' session in Paris, proof that he will not be intimidated by political opponents at home, Rice said.

Although the Saniora government is warmer to the United States than any Beirut government in two decades, he has paid a cost in criticism that he is a puppet of Washington.

Rice will meet privately with Saniora on Thursday, patching up a relationship strained by Saniora's frustration that it took 34 days to get a United Nations cease-fire in the Israeli-Hezbollah war.

The United States was widely viewed as sanctioning Israel's desire to do as much damage to Hezbollah as possible before the campaign stopped last August. The war wasted towns in southern Lebanon, destroying bridges and roads and other structures that neither Hezbollah nor the Beirut government have been able to replace quickly.

Hezbollah, backed by Iran and allied with Syria, is a military and political organization that controlled much of southern Lebanon before the war. The United States considers the group a terrorist organization. Its popularity among many of Lebanon's majority Shiites rose after the war, but the extent of its political clout is uncertain.

Rice did not directly answer a question about whether Tuesday's demonstrations reveal that Hezbollah is strong enough to bring down Saniora. His collapse could re-ignite civil war in a nation of 4 million that has traditionally been a Middle East battleground.

"I assume they would not want to plunge Lebanon into open conflict and to kill lots of innocent Lebanese to pursue their political goals," she said.

The United States and other Western nations that support Saniora see crucial stakes in Lebanon, hoping the country can emerge from years of war as an oasis of stability in the Middle East without interference from countries like Syria or Iran.

The Paris session is expected to bring in pledges of about $5 billion. The government estimates its needs at about $3.5 billion to repair buildings and infrastructure damaged in the summer war. Lebanon owes a staggering $40 billion, some of it dating to the 1970s and the country's long and bitter civil war.

The U.S. money would more than triple last year's pledge of $230 million, and represents a major increase over past years' annual offerings of $30 million to $40 million.

The largest chunk of that money would be a $250 million cash reserve to be meted out as the Lebanese government meets targets for financial and structural overhauls.

About $184 million would go to the U.N. peacekeeping force that is supposed to keep postwar order in southern Lebanon, and $60 million would support internal Lebanese security services.

It is not clear whether any of the money would directly fund efforts to disarm Hezbollah, something the United States insisted must be part of a settlement to end the war but which has never happened.


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