(AP) - The United States pledged to more than triple its economic aid to the fragile democratic government in Lebanon, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would not speculate Thursday on the fate of the donation should Hezbollah militants take power. French President Jacques Chirac opened a donor conference for Lebanon on Thursday with a plea for international support, which he said was vital for the war-scarred country.
Lebanon "more than ever needs the unanimous support of the international community," said the French leader, at the conference bringing together more than 30 nations.
The Bush administration is seeking $770 million in new aid for Lebanon. The money, which must be approved by Congress, would fund long-term redevelopment and immediate rebuilding from the devastating summer war between Hezbollah militants and Israel.
"This is a package that is for Lebanon," Rice said when asked if the money is contingent on the survival of a U.S.-backed government in Beirut. "Lebanon is a democracy."
Total U.S. aid pledges are about $1 billion since the end of Israel's 34-day war with Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon last summer, reports Trend.
Rice said the money reflects U.S. "faith in the Lebanese people and their ability to overcome their difficulties."
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, seated beside Rice at a press conference, said the money pledged at Thursday's conference is "not for the benefit of one group or one person."
Saniora is fighting for his political life against Hezbollah, a military and political organization that organized huge street protests Tuesday in a campaign to bring down Saniora's government.
Saniora took a risk by leaving Beirut to attend the conference, which is expected to bring in $4 billion to $7 billion for rebuilding and to reduce a crushing $40 billion national debt. As the conference opened, Saniora abruptly pulled out of a planned appearance later in the week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said Wednesday his movement can bring down the Saniora government at will, but wants to avert civil war. Hezbollah wants Saniora to resign.
"My government is there as the legitimate and constitutional government and it will continue as long as it has the support of the constitutional authorities, which is the parliament, and the majority of the Lebanese," Saniora said.
The United States regards Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. U.S. law forbids funding for terror groups, restrictions that led to a cutoff of direct U.S. aid for the Palestinian government following the election victory of the Hamas militants a year ago.
Bush administration has since found ways to segregate money for the Western-backed Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, but it is not clear what the administration would do if the Saniora government falls in Lebanon.
Lebanon's economy is virtually at a standstill, despite two other Paris donor conferences since 1998 and another in Stockholm, Sweden, in August that pledged about $1 billion for postwar reconstruction.
The U.S. government contribution would include $220 million in military aid for Saniora's beleaguered Western-backed government. The money could buy small arms, ammunition, spare parts and Humvees, U.S. officials said.
Lebanon estimates it needs about $3.5 billion to repair buildings and infrastructure damaged in the war with Israel. Lebanon owes a staggering $40 billion, some of it dating to the 1970s and the country's long civil war.
The U.S. money would more than triple last year's pledge of $230 million, and represents a major increase over past years' annual offerings of approximately $40 million.
The largest chunk of the new U.S. pledge would be a $250 million cash reserve to be meted out as the Lebanese government meets targets for financial and structural reform. About $184 million would go to the U.N. peacekeeping force that is supposed to keep postwar order in southern Lebanon, and $60 million would support internal Lebanese security services.
It is not clear whether any of the money would directly fund efforts to disarm Hezbollah, something the United States insisted must be part of a settlement to end the war but which has never happened.