WASHINGTON — Although wary of multinational peacekeeping operations, the Bush administration is working with allies to find a way to insert a robust military force and a civilian international presence in Lebanon to strengthen the frail government and break the grip of Hezbollah, U.S. and foreign diplomats say.
The peacekeepers would be positioned along Lebanon's southern border in an effort to prevent future Hezbollah attacks on Israel, whereas the civilian officials would be scattered elsewhere in the Arab country, including at key entry points, to halt the flow of military equipment from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah, the officials say.
First proposed by the United Nations, the international peacekeeping effort has become the focal point of American diplomacy, which has been limited since fighting broke out a week ago between Israel and Hezbollah.
Diplomats say they believe that there is significant support among some European and Arab governments for mobilizing a strong international presence in Lebanon to help end a confrontation that otherwise could bleed the region.
At the same time, such a plan would not take effect overnight. Israeli officials have said they plan to continue their offensive indefinitely, and the United States, Israel's most powerful ally, has made it clear that it opposes an immediate cease-fire.
Moreover, U.S. officials are keenly aware of the difficulties involved in peacekeeping efforts. Other such operations, including the U.N. force that has been in southern Lebanon for many years, have often proved ineffective because of problems fielding a capable force, working out rules of combat and gaining local cooperation.
One U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that while the Bush administration was committed to trying to set up the force, it had been drawn into the undertaking "kicking and screaming."
Israel, often wary of allowing others a role in matters affecting its security, thinks the peacekeeping mission could work. Though some officials at first criticized the idea, the government now views it as "something we'll support," said one Israeli official who requested anonymity when discussing the pending diplomatic efforts.
U.N. envoys Wednesday urged the international community to decide on a multinational buffer force quickly.
"We are in a hurry. It has to happen fast," said Terje Roed-Larsen, a veteran Mideast mediator and a special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He was speaking at a news conference in Madrid after visits to Beirut and Jerusalem.
To be effective, a new force probably would have to be several times as large as the 2,000-troop U.N. contingent -- known as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL -- that is in the region, officials said. It also probably would need highly trained soldiers, such as those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and rules of engagement that would allow its troops to intervene to stop hostilities, officials said.
The proposed international force would work side by side with the Lebanese army, which is weaker than Hezbollah and has no presence in the Shiite Muslim-dominated region in southern Lebanon, where the Islamist militant group has its base, officials say.
Diplomats are proposing to use such a force to create a buffer zone extending about 12 miles into Lebanon from the border with Israel to put the Jewish state out of range of Hezbollah's shorter-range missiles. Lebanese officials have given some indication of a willingness to work with Israel to secure their border.
Allied governments are also talking about introducing a corps of international monitors, or a separate security force, to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining long-range missiles that could strike Israel. These inspectors could be posted at the international airport and at seaports, and in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, adjacent to Syria. The Israeli government says Hezbollah has Iranian-made Zelzal missiles analysts believe have a range up to about 100 miles, though they have apparently not been used.
A halt to arms shipments is viewed as key by Israel's government, which believes the buffer zone would not eliminate the threat posed to the nation, Israeli officials say.
Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, was asked Wednesday about proposals to build a new peacekeeping force and limit the flow of arms into Lebanon. He declined to discuss specifics but said many ideas were being floated by diplomats.
"Parties of goodwill want to make sure that if and when there's a chance to go ahead and make sure that southern Lebanon is secure, it's done in such a way that guarantees long-term peace, does not allow the terrorist conditions to rearise in that area, and provides the conditions that will allow the [Lebanese] government to do its job effectively," Snow said.