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Reconstruction's Strange Bedfellows
Sectarian Divisions Erode in the Rubble of Lebanon
Hugh Macleod  
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Grand Mosque in Shiite Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, is being rebuilt by the Sunni state Qatar, with Hezbollah and other Shiites.

Bint Jbeil, Lebanon -- Abdullah Hassan Nasrallah proudly displayed a check for $11,000 to repair his home, which was damaged in last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The money came not from the elected Lebanese government in Beirut, nor Jihad al Binaa, Hezbollah's construction firm, nor even Iran, Hezbollah's strategic Shiite ally. It came from Qatar, a Sunni Gulf state that hosts a major U.S. military base and maintains trade relations with Israel.

"Over the last four months, we've had Jihad al Binaa, Qatar and the government's reconstruction committee visit us four times each," said Nasrallah, pointing to the bright paint marks on a damaged building left by surveyors from each agency. "They all came, but in the end it was the Qataris who paid."

In the Lebanese capital, 70 miles to the north, Hezbollah militants are leading demonstrations to bring down the Sunni-dominated government led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, which they accuse of following U.S. and Israeli interests by trying to strip the Shiite group of its arms.

Yet in the war-battered south, the universal language of cash is outweighing sectarianism and politics.

Bint Jbeil, a Shiite town and bastion of Hezbollah support, would seem an unlikely place for reconciliation between Islam's rival branches. But the international scramble to rebuild the damage is providing an unlikely model for cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites -- one that might be exported elsewhere around the region. Oil-rich Qatar is providing aid to repair nearly 400 religious buildings, including the Grand Mosque at the heart of Bint Jbeil's Old City, which is being rebuilt in partnership with a committee from Hezbollah and Amal, another Shiite party.

"Before now, Qatar used to aid governments directly," said Khaled al-Hitme, the fresh-faced engineer heading up his country's $300 million, 18-month reconstruction operation. "This is the first time we are actually rebuilding a country. My boss joked with me that once we're finished here, he will have to send me to rebuild Iraq."

The Qataris are rebuilding the southern towns of Khiam, Ait Achab, Bint Jbeil and Ainata -- hospitals, schools, mosques and houses.

"The people were very thankful to us," al-Hitme said. "Qatar was clear in calling for an immediate end to hostilities from the beginning of the war. We're not looking for Shia, Sunni, Hezbollah or Saniora. We pay directly to the people themselves. We see everyone as Lebanese citizens."

Sitting on a coffee table at Beirut's luxurious Phoenicia Hotel, where al-Hitme has been staying for the past seven months, is a thick book entitled "Monthly Report 4 by the Rehabilitation Project for South Lebanon Qatar and Lebanon."

By the end of January, the report details, the Qataris had handed out more than 5,000 compensation checks averaging $6,000, the first of three installments, to the people of the four towns in south Lebanon they are rebuilding. More than $38 million already has been spent.

Iran is also using its oil wealth to help rebuild Lebanon, despite its complaint that the government is throwing obstacles in its path for political reasons.

So far, Iranian engineers have overseen the repair or reconstruction of 60 schools across Lebanon, with 100 more on their to-do list. Four hospitals out of 22 have been repaired, while 30 places of worship -- including 10 churches and some Sunni mosques -- have been completed, leaving 70 still to do. Electricity has been restored to 60 villages in the south, and Iran is bankrolling a total rehabilitation of the notoriously poor electricity system in Beirut's southern suburbs.

Fifty of Lebanon's bombed-out bridges are on the Iranian timetable, with 10 major ones completed so far, and Iranian engineers are overseeing the repair of all of Lebanon's damaged roads.

"We have taken on 150 kilometers of main roads and some 500 kilometers of smaller roads," said Hussam Khoshnevis, head of the Iranian mission to aid in the reconstruction of Lebanon. "But there is a lack of information from the government, so we are mapping the roads ourselves," he added.

"We have an agreement with the government where we do the job ourselves and we hold onto the money and spend it directly," said Khoshnevis. "But though we have this agreement, we feel a certain hostility from the government, and that we are not being appreciated for our efforts compared with other countries."

In the devastated southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah maintains its headquarters, Iranian engineers offered to rebuild bombed-out highway overpasses.

They found that engineers from Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab regional rival to the ascendant power of Persian Shiite Iran, had already won the contract for that work. In Bint Jbeil, the Iranians opened an office to coordinate the reconstruction of the Shiite stronghold, only to find Qatar had agreed with the national government and local municipality that Sunni money would pay for the extensive reconstruction.

"If there is any country who says they want to rebuild, then we step back, and this is what happened in the case of Qatar and Bint Jbeil," said Khoshnevis. "Wherever there is damage, we rebuild -- regardless of sect. For us what is important is doing the job."

But the Islamic republic's close ties to Syria -- whose heavy-handed control of Lebanon since 1976 ended when it was forced out after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two years ago -- have produced wariness in accepting its aid.

For its part, the United States pledged $230 million in humanitarian reconstruction and security assistance to Lebanon. A further pledge of a massive $770 million in U.S. aid came at January's Lebanon Donors' Conference in Paris.

Yet the most visible impact of American post-conflict aid to date has been the provision of 20 military humvees -- the first batch of a total of 285 -- to the Lebanese army. Though a smattering of U.S. Agency for International Development signs can be found around rural areas, the agency employs just eight people in Lebanon.

Since last summer's war ended, USAID has given $7 million to a Christian charity for a school rehabilitation project. It has also awarded a $30 million contract for the reconstruction of the Mudairej Bridge -- one of the tallest in the Middle East -- to Contrack International, an American company, and provided $5 million to aid the cleanup of oil along Lebanon's northern coastline.

Sweeping down along the turquoise Mediterranean coastline, across temporary bridges and permanent potholes, and high up into the rugged hills of south Lebanon, the residents of Bint Jbeil and other towns that lost so much to the war care more about the pace of reconstruction than the source of the aid.

Khalil Ajami is awaiting reconstruction money from Qatar for his house in Bint Jbeil, damaged in last year's Israel-Hezbollah war.

"This house was my life's work," said Khalil Ajami, standing by the ruins of the home he built in hopes that some of his 13 children would eventually return to live with him through his old age.

Pockmarked with bullet holes and gutted from the inside after a huge mortar exploded through the roof, the rubble of his once-pristine home now serves as a temporary overnight refuge for Ajami, who travels to Bint Jbeil from southern Beirut -- where his other home was also destroyed -- each time news breaks that reconstruction engineers are making another survey.

Sectarian grudges are a luxury the homeless Shiite grandfather can little afford.

"If I had money, I would not ask for money. I don't want charity," he said, waving a photograph of his home from before the war.

"But I am lost and I am getting bored waiting for someone to help me. Yes, they are Sunnis, but Qatar is doing something, which is more than I can say for the politicians in Beirut."

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