PARIS - Lebanon's embattled pro-Western prime minister pleaded yesterday for international aid to stave off financial ruin in his war-scarred country and counter interference from Iran, Syria, and their Lebanese allies.

Fuad Saniora said he expected a donors conference today in Paris to provide "very significant" financial support from Arab states and Western countries to help Lebanon become a haven of stability in the Middle East.

The meeting comes as Saniora's U.S.-backed government is locked in confrontation with the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah and allied factions while struggling under mountains of debt.

Experts predicted the money offered - in the form of debt relief, low-cost loans and aid - likely would total $4 billion to $7 billion. That compares with Lebanon's $40 billion of state debt, equivalent to about 185 percent of annual economic output.

Although they insist the aid will be for all of Lebanon - not just for one man or his government - the United States and other donor nations back Saniora and say his government must be defended from meddling by Iran and neighboring Syria, which occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years until 2005.

"Not helping Lebanon will be much more expensive than helping it," Saniora told reporters after meeting with French President Jacques Chirac to prepare for today's meeting, which is expected to draw about 30 foreign ministers and representatives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Union.

France announced plans for a $650 million loan at "very advantageous" terms, while the EU pledged $522 million in aid and loans.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to meet with Saniora early today. Rice said yesterday that the United States would pledge nearly $770 million to help rebuild Lebanon this year.

"The government of Lebanon may be stressed by what's going on," Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, the State Department's top Middle East diplomat, told reporters in Paris, "but I believe they are strong and will weather this crisis."

Factions Clash Again in Tripoli

Government opponents and backers clashed for a second day in the northern Lebanon city

of Tripoli yesterday, a day after violence nationwide claimed three lives and injured more than 170 people.

Yesterday's fighting broke out during

the funeral of one of two men killed in the city Tuesday, when a general strike called by the Hezbollah-led opposition sparked clashes with government supporters.

As about 2,000 pro-government mourners headed

for the cemetery

in the Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Tabbaneh, a gun battle broke out between some of those in the crowd carrying automatic rifles and gunmen on an overlooking hill, security officials said. The gunmen on the hill were from the neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, a stronghold of the pro-opposition Alawite sect.

Shops quickly shuttered and people fled indoors; the shooting died down half an hour later. Two people were shot in the legs, police said.

Late yesterday, Hezbollah called an end to the general strike that sparked the clashes but warned that more protests could follow.

- Associated Press