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Iran steps in as demining work slows in Lebanon

Despite the potential for controversy, a new group funded by an Iranian company starts to remove munitions left behind after 2006 war.

NABATIYEH, SOUTH LEBANON // In a sun-bleached, breeze-block town just outside of Nabatiyeh in south Lebanon, a new-looking billboard has been erected. It announces the headquarters of a recently established non-governmental group called the Peace Generation Organisation for Demining (PGOD). In the corner of the billboard is a discreet representation of the Iranian flag. Although the organisation is Lebanese, the director of PGOD, Mahmoud Rahhal, confirmed that "most" of the group's funding comes from their partner organisation, ISOP, an Iranian demining company, which also provides supervision and training expertise.

Iran, along with the Arab Gulf states, has played a conspicuous role in the reconstruction effort in south Lebanon following the 2006 war with Israel, and the Iranian flag is a common sight on rebuilt roads around the south. This appears to be the first time, however, that Iranian money has been involved in the effort to remove the estimated 1.4 million unexploded cluster bombs dropped by Israel in the last 72 hours of the conflict. Up until now the clearance project has been funded by various sources worldwide, including the UAE, which was already contributing US$50 million (Dh183.5m) to landmine removal efforts in the south before the 2006 war and gave a further $20m to a programme which finished in 2007.

According to sources involved in the post-war reconstruction effort, Iran offered to assist with the ordnance removal efforts immediately after the war, but was discouraged from contributing by Lebanese authorities until a few months ago, when they signed a memorandum of understanding with PGOD allowing them to work in the field. Iranian influence in Lebanon is a highly sensitive issue. In a recent speech, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted for the first time that the Shia military group, which is also a political party, receives military and financial assistance from the Islamic republic.

PGOD implied their own close relationship with Hizbollah when they invited a senior party official to a press conference explaining their mission earlier this month, and they have a picture of Nasrallah in their publicity brochure. In recent years, Iran and Syria on one side, and the West and "moderate" Sunni Arab states on the other have played out their power struggles by proxy in Lebanon through the political battle between the government and the Hizbollah-dominated opposition.

Both the Gulf Arab states and Iran poured aid money into the south after the 2006 war, in a highly politicised reconstruction effort characterised by policy analysts as a competition for legitimacy. According to a forthcoming book by Amal Saad Ghorayeb, the then-Sinioria government was initially reluctant to assign large-scale reconstruction projects to Iran for fear of expanding Iranian influence, but the sheer quantity of money Iran was willing to spend (estimated at over $600m in total) gave it a pre-eminent role in the reconstruction effort.

Although PGOD's money does not come from the Iranian government, the involvement of an Iranian-linked NGO in the cluster bomb clearance effort is potentially more controversial than Iran's role in rebuilding infrastructure because of the military aspects of the operation: it involves co-ordinating with the Lebanese army, handling explosives, and sometimes working in areas south of the Litani river, from which Hizbollah was obliged to withdraw any military presence under the terms of the 2006 ceasefire.

According to Timur Goksel, a former official with Unifil, there are "no security implications" to any organisation being involved in cluster bomb removal. All demining agencies are under the supervision of the Lebanese authorities, who decide which areas of land are going to be worked by which organisations. Nonetheless, the perception problem remains. PGOD has aroused intense, if unsubstantiated suspicion in certain quarters, with some people suggesting they are not solely here for the purpose of demining.

It is unclear why the Lebanese authorities appear to have changed their attitude towards allowing Iranian funding in the cluster bomb removal programme, but one explanation is that the western NGOs are experiencing serious donor fatigue, and there remains an estimated 16.5 square kilometres of contaminated land still to be cleared. The Lebanese Mine Action Centre (LMAC), the main national co-ordinating body for mine-clearance activities, had initially estimated that cluster bomb removal would be completed by the middle of this year, a projection which funding shortfalls are now forcing it to revise.

The unexploded munitions scattered across the south Lebanon countryside have claimed 349 casualties since the end of the war. The majority of them are children, who are attracted to the munitions as playthings - one type has white ribbons, and another looks like a white tennis ball. Although casualty rates have been declining, much of the land which remains to be cleared is agricultural, and its ongoing contamination affects livelihoods.

In the past year, funding scarcity has forced the largest NGO, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), to reduce its teams from 14 to 10, slowing the rate of clearance, and the Swedish Rescue Services Agency (SRSA) has had to close its operations down altogether, making around 50 local staff unemployed. "I was very disappointed to have to close the programme down," said David Alderson, the former programme and operations manager for SRSA, who lost part of his leg during a clearance operation here in 2006.

"I knew there was still work to be done but I just couldn't get funding." Christina Bennike, the project manager for MAG, which has succeeded in clearing 13 square kilometres since 2006, says she can only guarantee the existence of her reduced teams for another few months. "We have secure funding up until the end of March, we can't say for sure after that, no one knows." The NGOs cite various reasons for the funding slowdown, including the global recession and Lebanon's relatively low scoring on other humanitarian priority indicators such as poverty.

In contrast to the western NGOs, PGOD appears to be in a much more secure position. "We are getting more funds, we are comfortable in our objectives," said Mr Rahhal, who estimates that 90 per cent of his local staff previously worked for the western demining agencies. Mr Rahhal, a Lebanese engineer who spent 25 years working in the humanitarian sector, stresses that his group is working in a spirit of co-operation with the other agencies, striving towards the same shared goals: "our right to live well, in our country, and have a good harvest." Lebanese authorities and members of the demining community have expressed their appreciation for the extra two battlefield clearance teams provided by PGOD, which supplement the 16 western NGO teams and three Unifil ones.

If current donor trends continue, however, PGOD's logo ? and possibly the Iranian flag ? could become more prevalent on the vehicles skirting the sloping tobacco and olive fields of south Lebanon. "We are not competing with anyone," said Mr Rahhal, "but if [the other NGOS] leave and our budget allows it, we will do more." * The National

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