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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

U.S., Allies Split on Course

A meeting is canceled again as deep differences remain in the Security Council over whether to deploy peacekeepers without a cease-fire.

August 03, 2006|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Deep disagreements about the terms of a peace deal for Lebanon divided the United States from most of its European allies Wednesday as the Security Council struggled to take preliminary steps toward a resolution that could silence the guns.

For the second time this week, diplomats canceled a meeting of countries that might contribute troops to a peacekeeping mission. The meeting had been scheduled for today, but a key contributor, France, refused to attend unless there was a broad deal in place that included a cease-fire.

However, the language used by United Nations diplomats to describe their differences was softer than earlier in the week, and diplomats indicated privately that they expected agreement in the next few days on a draft resolution that would outline a cease-fire arrangement.

The Security Council is now working on a single text written by the French rather than on competing versions.

But just beneath the rapprochement remain deep differences over Middle East policy. Washington agrees with Israel on the need to cripple Hezbollah and thereby deal a blow by proxy to Iran.

For the Europeans -- particularly the French, whose ties to Lebanon and Syria date to the period when both were French protectorates -- the specter of a broader war, the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the destruction of a country that has been painstakingly rebuilt in the last decade loom much larger.

The Europeans are engaged in diplomacy viewed as crucial to any peace deal, some of it with Syria, a country with which the Bush administration has refused to engage directly.

U.S. diplomats did their best to downplay the tensions.

"There are differences in approach to the nature of the cessation of hostilities and how to make it permanent, but there is near-complete agreement on the fundamental political framework that has to be put in place," said U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton.

The sequence of elements of the deal remains the crucial point of disagreement. The European Union wants an immediate truce followed by negotiation of a long-term cease-fire that would include such elements as the disarming of Hezbollah and its integration into the Lebanese army.

Washington is reluctant to agree to a multi-step process, which the U.S. and the Israelis fear would give Hezbollah time to regroup. However, achieving a one-step process could take days or weeks, at the cost of many more civilian casualties.

Britain has backed the U.S. view while pressing Washington to move quickly.

The U.S. appears increasingly isolated in its arguments. The EU approved a statement Tuesday urging an "immediate cessation of hostilities to be followed by a sustainable cease-fire," language that the Bush administration resists because the approach would undercut Israel's offensive.

Israel has said it needs a couple more weeks to complete military action against the militant group. If such language were adopted, Hezbollah also would have to stop firing missiles at Israel.

U.S. allies in the Muslim world, who had mostly maintained an uncomfortable silence, began to openly criticize the United States' position. Saudi Arabia, which initially expressed dismay over the Hezbollah raid, hit squarely at the U.S. on Wednesday, saying it should put pressure on Israel to stop.

"We take issue with the United States that it did not take a position that prevents Israel from striking Lebanon," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal said in Riyadh.

Despite U.S. objections, diplomats appeared to be moving toward the French position. The French and possibly the Turks are likely to the lead the force, and they must have a strong say on the terms, diplomats said.

Under discussion is the creation of a zone in which Hezbollah would not operate. Later, Hezbollah would have to assent to its fighters becoming part of the Lebanese military, said diplomats close to the negotiations. Such an arrangement would be similar to the one in Kosovo in which the Kosovo Liberation Army initially agreed to stop its attacks on Serbs and subsequently become part of the police force. That arrangement has had mixed success.

Also under discussion is a two-stage deployment of peacekeepers, with the vanguard going into southern Lebanon immediately and a second force following in several months. The U.S. supports such an approach.

Furthermore, any political agreement will require the involvement of Hezbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria. EU members are moving to make up for Washington's lack of contact with those two countries. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos traveled to Damascus, the Syrian capital, to discuss the situation with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moualem, on Wednesday. Moratinos also met with Lebanese Cabinet members, including two with Hezbollah.

"The bombardments must be ended. The military operations must be ended," the Reuters news agency quoted Moratinos as saying in Lebanon. "Hezbollah must also be told to stop the firing of missiles at the Israeli civilian population."

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