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Iran builds a presence in Lebanon

Special to The Times

Along the roadways of southern Lebanon, thousands of banners festoon street lights and utility poles. They feature a distinctive symbol, a red inscription from the center of Iran’s flag, protectively swathing Lebanon’s iconic green cedar.

The emblem belongs to the Iranian reconstruction organization. Its presence delivers a message that is not lost on critics of Iran’s role here, nor supporters who have watched cratered roads filled in, damaged school walls resurrected and life return to some semblance of normalcy over the last year.

Other countries “have reconstructed everything: the schools, the buildings, the roads,” said Nazim Khanafer, a 47-year-old building contractor in Ainata, a town ruined in the war between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah a year ago. It is now being rebuilt with the help of Iran and other countries. “They have paid money to the people, unlike the government.”

The reconstruction of Lebanon after last summer’s war was meant to strengthen the U.S.-backed Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured in from U.S.-friendly Persian Gulf countries

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Instead, as government officials acknowledge, the rebuilding effort in badly damaged areas of southern Lebanon, south Beirut and the Bekaa Valley has mostly highlighted the government’s weakness.

At stake is control over volatile pieces of real estate, some abutting Israel, that have been key battlegrounds over the last three decades in the proxy wars waged by Iran, Syria and the United States and its allies.

Though the state is distributing most of the donated funds, Iran and Qatar have decided to directly contribute and supervise their aid. Over the last year, these two countries have spent millions of dollars on flashy projects without the government’s imprimatur.

In the eyes of many Lebanese, their government has had little role in rebuilding the country.

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“There is a feeling that the state is absent from the reconstruction process,” said Ali Amine, who has been closely following the rebuilding efforts in the south as an editor for Al Balad, a daily newspaper. “The government has shown no real interest in what happens in the south.”

Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, speaking Tuesday via giant screens placed in a south Beirut square, declared that his Iranian-backed group had spent $381 million to provide temporary shelter for 25,000 families, restore infrastructure and buildings and revive the economy. He accused the government of slowing down payments of $1 billion it had collected from international donors.

Government officials contend that they’re not given the credit they deserve for the reconstruction effort. They’ve been busy fighting armed Islamic radicals in northern Lebanon while locked in a political battle with their opponents that all but shut down the government.

A Siniora aide acknowledged that his government had been struggling to gain an edge in the public relations battle over the reconstruction, but must overcome the red tape and bureaucracy inherent to state-run projects.

“Some people are very good at pointing to the shortcomings of the government and highlighting their own accomplishments,” Mohammed Shattah, a spokesman for Siniora, said of Iran’s reconstruction efforts. “These are attempts to weaken the state by weakening its image. We think they’re counterproductive and do not help the state to become stronger.”

Iran is a Shiite Muslim majority country that is run by hard-line anti-U.S. clerics and politicians. It sees itself as the patron of Shiites around the world, including those in Lebanon, who make up a third to half of the population.

The government in Tehran strongly supported Hezbollah in the war with Israel last year, and pledged to help Lebanon recover from the damage.

Whenever the Lebanese government, nonprofit organizations or other donor nations have faltered, Iran and its ally Hezbollah, which dominates most of the municipal governments of the south, have quickly swooped in, residents and officials say.

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For example, when Qatar slowed reconstruction efforts several months ago because of corruption worries, Iran quickly upped its contribution.

“The Qataris were saying a lot of the money was being wasted,” said Ibrahim Said, a business owner in Bint Jbeil, a border town that was crushed by Israeli airstrikes during the closing days of the war. “Four months ago, there was a sudden halt in reconstruction, and the Iranians said, ‘If you don’t want to do it, we’ll step in.’ ”

The head of Iran’s reconstruction effort says his country has set no spending limit for Lebanon.

“Contrary to other countries, we did not decide on a fixed budget for the reconstruction of Lebanon,” Hussam Khoshnevis said. “The Islamic Republic decided to pay as much as is needed on the ground.”

Much of Iran’s financial support is invisible. It is channeled through Hezbollah’s charity organizations. Immediately following the war, the Shiite militant group paid as much as $12,000 for each destroyed home or apartment. A large portion of this money was believed to have originated in Iran.

In heavily damaged Hrat Hreik, an enclave in a southern suburb of Beirut called Dahiyeh, contractors have removed rubble, repaved roads, rebuilt sidewalks and restored electricity and running water.

“We’ve done this in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program and other donor groups, especially Iran represented through the municipality of Tehran,” said Samir Dakkash, head of the local government in Hrat Hreik. “Money was directly paid to contractors, so we don’t know how much Iranians spent.”

Work to rebuild apartment buildings damaged by Israeli airstrikes has also started. Often, even when pro-American donor countries and the Siniora government provide the money, Hezbollah shares the credit. Its reconstruction arm recently persuaded 70% of those who got grants from the government to funnel their cash into a project that will restore or rebuild 198 buildings under the Hezbollah banner. Elaborate plans include green spaces, parking lots and trees imported from Africa.

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According to its own accounting, Iran has spent $155 million in Lebanon, about $25 million more than the U.S. government has sent through the U.S. Agency for International Development for reconstruction. Iran says it has rebuilt at least 149 schools, 48 mosques and churches, 10 health clinics, 64 electricity projects and 19 bridges. It continues work on nearly 100 other building and infrastructure projects. It has completed work on 504 roadways, and has 76 underway.

The Lebanese government, Khoshnevis says, simply isn’t up to the job.

“The Lebanese state is slow in implementing projects, and when they do the job, the cost is very high,” he said.

Beirut has little choice but to accept Tehran’s help. It is neither powerful enough to prevent ministries, local officials and individuals from doing business with Iran, nor rich enough to refuse the Islamic Republic’s help.

In an e-mail response to questions, Siniora’s office said that it couldn’t confirm that Iran had done everything it said it had in Lebanon, because of what it said was the Tehran regime’s lack of transparency.

Most residents and officials said they understood why it was hard to rebuild quickly. But a year after the war, hard-hit areas such as downtown Bint Jbeil remain little more than piles of rubble and twisted steel. Even those who doubt the ultimate intention of donors such as Iran are reluctant to criticize anyone helping to meet such great need.

“We thank anyone who wants to help us,” said Tony Hamra, a 37-year-old grocery store operator in the southern town of Marjayoun, which is inhabited mostly by Christians. “But we aren’t thankful if they want to do something that’s not ultimately good for our country.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Rafei is a special correspondent and Daragahi a Times staff writer.


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