U.S. tries to counter Hezbollah rebuilding efforts in s. Lebanon

By Reuters

Haaretz

Av 24, 5766

Concerned that Hezbollah has an early advantage in rebuilding shattered south Lebanon, the Bush administration is trying to speed up aid and encouraging Arab states to step in quickly, United States officials said this week.

The White House is "cracking the whip" on rebuilding efforts so Iranian-backed Hezbollah is not seen taking the lead and winning any more support among the local population, said a senior State Department official.

"I've said we have got to get with this. These guys [Hezbollah] are out there with their own bulldozers and what are we doing? It takes forever for us to start up rebuilding projects," said the senior official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The U.S. came under heavy criticism from Arab countries and some European governments during the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah that halted with a UN-brokered truce this week.

Washington was criticized for refusing to back calls for an immediate cease-fire, thereby appearing to give a green light to extensive Israeli bombing in Lebanon.

The United States has pledged $50 million so far to humanitarian aid in Lebanon, half of which has been handed out to aid groups working in the conflict zone. However, a senior U.S. official said it was unclear how much Washington would contribute to rebuilding.

A donors conference on humanitarian aid is set for Aug. 31 in Stockholm and a later one may be held to deal directly with repairing Lebanon's shattered infrastructure. Bridges and roads took a pounding in the conflict.

Any large-scale U.S.-funded rebuilding effort could take months, just as it did in Iraq where the Bush administration's efforts are still faltering.

Too slow

American officials worry that Hezbollah and Iran will take advantage of U.S. bureaucracy surrounding aid efforts and boost their own credibility by getting in first.

"We have been delivering stuff from the beginning [of the conflict] but we need to get something much more substantial on the ground," said the State Department fficial.

Hezbollah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah vowed after Monday's truce that his guerrilla group would help fund repairs for about 15,000 bomb-damaged homes across Lebanon.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Hezbollah was using the same tactics as the Palestinian militant group Hamas and al-Qaeda in getting on the ground quickly to rebuild.

"This is an emerging tactic, which is commit acts of terror, try to get people to fight against each other, and set up a charitable foundation to hand out cash and crumbs to the victims," Snow told reporters.

A senior U.S. aid agency official Bill Garvelink said the near-term focus would be on helping to rebuild people's homes and that American engineers were in the area assessing damage to bridges and roads.

The U. S. is pushing Arab states like Saudi Arabia to deliver aid rapidly to southern Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has committed half a billion dollars to humanitarian relief and promised another billion for rebuilding.

Israel is nervous that Iranian funding will be used by Hezbollah and is pushing for tight restrictions on such assistance, telling the Bush administration to tighten up any loopholes.