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8/16/06

Lebanon Faces Massive Reconstruction Task

By Eugen Tomiuc

PRAGUE, August 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As thousands of residents are slowly, but steadily returning to southern Lebanon and the suburbs of south Beirut, the Lebanese government has started assessing the damage caused by the month-long war.

The head of the country's council for development and reconstruction, Fadl Shalak, said today that the damage incurred "amounts to $3.5 billion." The amount includes $2 billion for buildings and $1.5 billion for infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, and power plants.

Shalak said that the figures -- which do not include the indirect losses to business, industry, and tourism -- were not final, as the authorities still had to undertake a final study.

Early estimates say almost 100 roads and 70 bridges were damaged, while the number of homes destroyed is still unclear. Hizballah claims some 15,000 homes have been flattened and many more damaged. Other estimates say some 10,000 homes will need rebuilding.

Hizballah Steps In To Rebuild

As the Lebanese now turn to rebuilding, it is the Iranian-backed Hizballah that appears to be moving fastest on the ground.

Zouheir Kseibati, editor at the Beirut office of the "Dar al-Hayat" online newspaper, says the Lebanese Shi'ite militia is wasting no time in assessing the damage, cleaning out the rubble, and finding new or temporary homes for the victims.

"In general, these areas which were targeted by the Israelis, they are usually the places where Hizballah has support from people, so it's very important for them to clean the area first, to start rebuilding the houses for people who [have stayed] in schools [after the war] until now -- in many areas of Lebanon," Kseibati says.

Hizballah's leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has promised on television that payments would be made without delay to those who lived in now-destroyed homes.

Competition Or Cooperation

The Lebanese government is also launching a reconstruction effort. But Kseibati says Hizballah -- which is well funded by Iran and by rich Lebanese Shi'a abroad -- appears to be in competition with the government rather than cooperating with it.

"It's not clear yet, but what Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, said was that they are not going to wait for the government to start rebuilding the houses," Kseibati says. "They are not going to wait for the government, which is very clear."

However, Kseibati says it is too early to say whether Hizballah has indeed gained the upper hand in the reconstruction and aid effort.

"It's just the beginning," he says. "I mean, you have to take into account that the cease-fire was just called three days ago. We have to wait a few days at least to see what will happen, because people are just starting to return to their homes and to see the damage -- to see if they can really return or have to stay away for awhile until the Hizballah or the government help them to rebuild again."

European Commission aid commissioner Louis Michel (right) inspecting damage in southern Beirut on August 15 (epa)Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has said Iran is ready to help reconstruction in Lebanon.

Some observers say the aid promises from Hizballah and Iran -- and the race to be ahead of government efforts -- could reflect a competition for the hearts and minds of the Lebanese public following the war.

Hizballah is widely seen in Lebanon as successfully standing up to Israel. But it is also blamed in some quarters for starting the fighting with a cross-border seizure of two Israeli soldiers.

International Aid

Meanwhile, the Swedish government has announced it will host an international donors conference for humanitarian aid to Lebanon on August 31. Some 60 governments have been invited to attend the conference in Stockholm, although it is unclear how many countries will attend.

Arab foreign ministers will meet at Arab League headquarters in Egypt on August 20 for talks on Lebanon. The ministers will discuss whether to hold an emergency summit of Arab leaders and how they could contribute to rebuilding Lebanon.

Kseibati says that, in the end, it will rest with the Lebanese people themselves to erase the wounds of the recent fighting as soon as possible.

"In Lebanon you have to take into account that in this country, after many wars, the people are familiar with this kind of catastrophe, and always they return -- they are trying to return -- to normal life as quickly as possible," Kseibati says.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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