(AP) - Lebanon sought new funding for its beleaguered government on Thursday at a one-day donor's conference, an event French President Jacques Chirac said was vital for the war-scarred country.
Lebanon "more than ever needs the unanimous support of the international community," Chirac said as he opened the conference bringing together more than 30 nations.
The U.S. said it plans to more than triple its economic aid. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on the eve of the meeting that the Bush administration is seeking $770 million in new aid for Lebanon, reports Trend.
The money, which must be approved by Congress, would finance long-term redevelopment and immediate rebuilding from last summer's war between Hezbollah militants and Israel.
Saudi Arabia said it would channel $1 billion in development funding and an additional $100 million grant for the Lebanese government. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, pledged some $522 million in loans or aid, while Britain also announced new funding of $48 million for a U.N. refugee agency doing work in Lebanon.
"Your support will be essential in seeing Lebanon through," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora told the conference. "The cost of failure is too great to contemplate."
He added that Lebanon is "on the verge of a deep recession."
The conference comes as the U.S.-backed government of Saniora is locked in confrontation with Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies, struggling under mountains of debt in addition to rebuilding parts of southern Lebanon in ruins after the summer war.
Rice and Saniora met for breakfast Thursday before the conference started. Along with the countries attending, representatives from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union were there.
Experts predict the funds offered _ as debt relief, low-cost loans and aid _ will likely total between $4 billion to $7 billion. That compares to Lebanon's $40 billion of debt, equivalent to about 185 percent of its annual economic output.
Although they insist that aid will be for the entire country _ not just for one man or his government _ the United States and other donor nations back Saniora and say Lebanon must be defended from meddling by Iran and neighboring Syria, which occupied the country for nearly 30 years before withdrawing in 2005.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the conference sent a signal of political as well as economic support for Saniora's government and his proposals to reduce public debt.
"This government does have a credible reform program," she told reporters.
Already Wednesday, host France announced plans for a $650 million loan to Lebanon at "very advantageous" terms, while the European Union pledged $522 million in new aid and loans.
Saniora's critics said donors would worsen Lebanon's debt and be pouring good money after bad.
This week's clashes in Lebanon between pro- and anti-government factions harked back to the country's civil war days and offered a stark glimpse of how quickly events could spiral out of control if the confrontation between Saniora's government and Hezbollah and its allies is not resolved. Nationwide violence claimed three lives and injured more than 170 people on Tuesday during a nationwide strike.
Hezbollah gained new public support in its war with Israel and is thought to have given out many millions of dollars worth of aid to residents in areas devastated by the fighting. Western powers hope to counter that influence by pouring in more funding of their own.
No Hezbollah representatives were invited to the Paris event. France and other donors said they were working only with the elected Saniora government, and it was up to him to work with opponents at home.
The worsening political turmoil has raised concerns that the government may be too paralyzed to fully rebuild even with newly injected funds. Aid will come with conditions _ mainly assurances that Saniora's government will make good on economic and structural reforms announced this month, which have infuriated labor unions and Hezbollah supporters.