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The Fight to Rebuild Lebanon

Sunni governments vie with Shiite-ruled Iran and Hezbollah to prove who is doing more.

September 17, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The rush to rebuild this war-crushed country has gotten tangled up with a high-stakes sectarian competition, as Sunni Arab governments in the region race against Shiite-ruled Iran and its ally Hezbollah to prove political clout and capture grass-roots loyalty, analysts say.

A steady stream of foreign delegations crunches over the rubble of the southern suburbs for photo opportunities; spokespeople churn out competing press releases; catty cut-downs are exchanged between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. Milk trucks on remote farm roads near the Israeli border proclaim that their boxed milk is a gift from the Saudi people; an Iranian flag emblazons water tanks in Beirut.

For decades, Lebanon has been an oft-abused host to its neighbors -- a sun-warmed playground for the wealthy, but also a proxy battlefield for tensions that wash over the Middle East. In the current struggle, the region's power players jockey not with guns but with charity dollars, boxed food and showy displays of compassion.

"There's a kind of competition between the Arab governments and Iran," said Kamel Mohanna, general coordinator for Arab NGOs Forum. "It's a competition to have political influence here ... to decrease the influence of Iran, to show that not only Iran has sent money to this area."

The unmistakable oneupmanship is a stark reminder of the panic that has gripped the region as the power of Iran has swelled. Animosities between Sunnis and Shiites stretch back into the origins of Islam, and have sharpened in recent years as the oil-rich Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf compete for influence against Iran. Sunni Arabs watched with unease as Iranian influence spread among Shiites in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and sat by nervously while Tehran squared off against the West over Iran's nuclear program.

This summer's war in Lebanon upped the ante. The perception that Hezbollah guerrillas drove Israel out of Lebanon has swept the coffee shops and streets of the Arab world. Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has been lionized, even among Sunni Arabs who might previously have viewed the Shiite with suspicion, analysts say.

As soon as the bombing stopped, Hezbollah foot soldiers waded into devastated streets and handed bundles of cash to families that had lost homes to Israeli bombing. Hezbollah has been coy about its ties to Iran, but most of the cash is presumed to have come from Tehran.

The Lebanese government, dominated by Sunnis and Christians, has struggled to counteract the perception that Hezbollah is chiefly responsible for the aid and reconstruction efforts.

"Iran may be trying to come into play here, saying, 'Hey, we're not bad guys, we're benevolent,' " said Mohammed Mamlouk, the prime minister's aide in charge of coordinating foreign aid. "But they're not fooling anybody. I bet even the Shiites here know better."

Mamlouk sat among a sea of chiming telephones and scurrying people in Beirut's government center. Aid was pouring into government coffers from all over the Arab world and beyond, but not from Iran. The money from Tehran was going straight to Hezbollah, Mamlouk said.

"It's our government, and our job to take care of the people," he said. "Every time you send an engineer, you don't send a TV crew with him just to show that the government is working."

Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have come forward with immense donations, Mamlouk said. He is careful to note the Saudi prince who stayed on the Syrian border all night to supervise the transfer of aid into Lebanon during the Israeli bombardment.

"Hezbollah believes it's important to show they're paying and taking care of their own people. They're overplaying it with the media," Mamlouk said. "So we're making shows now. We're drumming it up."

Lebanon's Shiites, believed to be the largest sect in the country's religious mosaic, have a long-standing tradition of taking care of their own, developed in response to government neglect.

Now the central government is working to show Shiites that their needs are taken seriously in Beirut. The outreach is driven in part, analysts say, by suspicions across the region that Shiite Arabs are secretly more loyal to their Iranian coreligionists than to their countrymen.

"Arabs are trying to get the Shias to integrate more in Lebanon and forget Iran," said Hilal Khashan, an expert on the region's Shiites and a professor at the American University of Beirut. "This is the challenge: How do you get Shias to pledge allegiance to the Lebanese state and forget foreign influence?"

Hezbollah hasn't helped. Its political leaders dismiss government aid efforts as corruption-riddled traps that snare money long before it reaches the needy. They sometimes speak of the government as a foreign force, and accuse Beirut of secretly rooting for Israel to win the war and obliterate Hezbollah.

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