Arab FMs discuss rebuilding Lebanon

Diplomats say plan meant to counter flood of money from Iran to Hizbullah.

arab fm summit 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
arab fm summit 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Arab League foreign ministers convened for an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss how to fund reconstruction in Lebanon and defuse Mideast tensions amid rising discord between moderate Arabs and Syria, a main backer of Hizbullah. The Kuwaiti government plans to donate US$800 million to Lebanon, announced Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammed Al Sabbah upon arrival in Cairo. Saudi Arabia said it had already donated US$500 million, and other oil-rich nations have also made pledges to chip in. Lebanese foreign minister Fawzi Salloukh urged his Arab counterparts to make further commitments. "Lebanon is looking for more help for its reconstruction," he said ahead of the meeting. Worried that the 34-day conflict between Hizbullah and Israel has given a boost to radical militants and their Syrian and Iranian backers, Arab ministers were expected to review a plan to channel funds to Lebanon and to revive the stalled Middle East peace process with Israel. Diplomats said Arabs want to counter a flood of money that is believed to be coming from Iran to Hizbullah to finance reconstruction projects. An estimated 15,000 apartments were destroyed and 140 bridges hit by Israeli bombardment in Lebanon, along with power and desalination plants and other key infrastructure. "This is a war over the hearts and mind of the Lebanese, which Arabs should not lose to the Iranians this time," said a senior Arab League official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has pledged to help rebuild Lebanon, and Hizbullah social workers have begun distributing money to pay rent and buy furniture for civilians who lost their homes - paying out US$12,000 in cash per person. Nasrallah did not say where the money would come from, but Iran, which helped create Hizbullah and is its strongest supporter, is widely believed to have opened its treasury for the rebuilding program. However, Iran - which is not an Arab nation and is not part of the league - denied on Sunday that it was sending money to Hizbullah. "Hizbullah is a legitimate body in Lebanon; they have their own economic resources and popular support there," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi. Eighteen of the Arab League's 22 foreign ministers had gathered in Cairo - but in a sign of growing regional tensions, Syrian minister Walid Moallem had skipped the meeting. His absence came after many Arab governments were angered by a speech on Tuesday by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who slammed fellow Arab leaders for not supporting Hizbullah, saying the war had revealed them to be "half men." Ahmed Ben Heli, the Arab League's deputy secretary general, said the ministers would discuss a plan to create an Arab League fund to rebuild Lebanon. Ben Heli did not elaborate but other diplomats said Egypt was proposing a 13-point plan to raise the money and distribute it. The meeting was yet to fix a timeframe for these efforts, they said. Ben Heli also said ministers would discuss when to convene an Arab summit that will address the Lebanon crisis and broader Arab efforts to revamp the deadlocked Middle East peace process. Hesham Youseef, a top aide to Arab League chief Amr Moussa, told the AP on Thursday that the League was working on a new peace plan to present to the UN Security Council next month. Regional heavyweights such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia believe that the Arab League "should build on the international concerns on what is going on in the whole area," Youssef said. He said the new peace initiative would be high on the agenda of Sunday's gathering. The Arab League says it has the backing of UN Security Council nations to convene a meeting in New York in September to revamp the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Details remain sketchy, and already Israel has expressed skepticism, saying it doubts any plan Arab countries put forward would take into account its security needs.