Bush names team to help Lebanon reconstruction

WASHINGTON (AFP) — President George W. Bush on Saturday named a delegation of corporate leaders to visit Lebanon and explore ways of helping the country rebuild following the devastating monthlong war between Israel and Hizbollah.

The group, which includes Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, Cisco chief executive John Chambers and Ray Irani of Occidental Petroleum, will also lead a public fundraising drive to help finance Lebanon’s reconstruction, the White House said in a statement.

It said the aim of the campaign was to “demonstrate US private-sector support for Lebanon’s reconstruction and development” by seeking individual and corporate donations for the rebuilding effort. “This effort will highlight the generosity of the American people,” it said.

Hizbollah, considered a “terrorist” organisation by the United States, sparked the 34-day war by capturing two Israeli soldiers during a cross-border raid on an army post in northern Israel.

Israeli artillery and aerial bombardments during the ensuing conflict caused widespread devastation, destroying villages in southern Lebanon and urban neighbourhoods as far away as Beirut, and knocking out key infrastructure.

The fighting stopped on August 14 after adoption of a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution that led to the deployment of Lebanese army troops backed up by international forces along the Lebanon-Israel border.

Since the truce, Hizbollah has played a leading role in reconstruction efforts in the worst hit areas of southern Lebanon, a development seen as undermining the national government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

Siniora has said the government needs billions of dollars to repair the destruction. A donor conference in Stockholm on August 31 received pledges of $940 million  in aid. In announcing the US aid initiative, the White House indicated its concern for the future of Siniora’s administration.

“The United States believes it is important that Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Lebanon’s young democracy succeed,” it said.

The Bush administration was widely criticised for refusing to join international calls for an immediate ceasefire during the fighting, a stance seen as giving its Israeli ally more time to damage Hizbollah.

Since the war ended, Bush has announced $230 million in assistance to Lebanon, about $40 million of it to bolster the Lebanese army and the rest to provide emergency assistance to affected populations and begin the rebuilding process.

The White House said the private sector funds to be raised by the new corporate initiative would be used to help the Lebanese people “rebuild their homes and lives by restoring bridges and roads, repairing damaged schools, and supporting other humanitarian aid efforts”.

The delegation will be headed by Assistant Secretary of State Dina Habib Powell and also includes Yousif Ghafari, chairman of Ghafari Incorporated, an engineering and architecture firm.

The group will visit Beirut and areas hardest hit by the recent conflict to assess “where funds are most needed, and how those resources will be most effectively distributed”, the White House said. They will also meet with Siniora and Lebanese business leaders and then discuss their findings with Bush, it said.

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