Donors pledge more than US$940 million to rebuild Lebanon

The United States, Europe and the Gulf states pledged nearly US$1 billion to help Lebanon recover from a crippling war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, doubling the amount sought by an international donors' conference.

Organizers hailed the bigger-than-expected contributions Thursday as a show of strength for nations seeking to counter the influence of Hezbollah in rebuilding roads, homes and lives after the 34-day war.

But critics warned the amount was a moot point, saying it was impossible to sidestep Hezbollah when delivering aid to southern Lebanon.

"I don't think this will help Lebanon in the long term," said Middle East expert Magnus Norell of the Swedish Defense Research Agency. "There is only one actor in southern Lebanon that can handle aid, and that's Hezbollah."

World donors gathered for the conference in Stockholm pledged US$940 million (Ђ731 million) in early reconstruction aid nearly twice the US$500 million (Ђ390 million) target set by organizers. The money was earmarked for rebuilding infrastructure, clearing unexploded Israeli bombs including cluster bombs and restoring social services. Another donors' conference was planned later this year for long-term reconstruction.

In his opening speech, Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora told delegates that 15 years of postwar development had been wiped out by "Israel's deadly military machine" in a matter of days. The direct damage of the conflict was in the "billions of dollars," while the indirect cost including lost tourism and industry revenue would cost billions more, Saniora said.

He praised donors for their generosity and rejected suggestions that the aid would be a boost to Hezbollah.

"This idea, that it will be siphoned in one way or another to Hezbollah is entirely, completely, a fallacy," he said.

Hezbollah is already offering hundreds of millions of dollars in aid _ most of it apparently promised by Iran. And there are fears in the West that, unless donor countries provide significant amounts, sympathy for Hezbollah, Iran and Islamic radicals will grow dramatically, reports AP.