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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

If Peace Comes, Just Who'll Go In to Keep It?

Even if a truce occurs, few countries seem eager to put troops between Israel and a Hezbollah that is entrenched and refusing to disarm.

July 26, 2006|Tyler Marshall and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's effort to assemble an international peacekeeping force for Lebanon has quickly run into several roadblocks, including one especially daunting: Few countries seem willing to commit troops, especially without a cease-fire agreement in place.

The White House has said no U.S. troops would be part of such a force. Britain says it is stretched too thin to take on another deployment. France has called talk of such a force "premature," while German officials wince at the idea of their troops on Israel's border.

Such reluctance is complicating the U.S. push to deploy a force to isolate the Islamic militant group Hezbollah and neutralize its ability to strike Israel from bases in southern Lebanon.

Such a deployment would mark the first time combat-ready peacekeeping troops were stationed on one of Israel's frontiers.

U.N. peacekeepers, first deployed along the border in 1978 and currently numbering about 2,000, have never been considered a combat force, and have been overwhelmed by the current fighting.

Aside from finding troops, other problems are hobbling the potential deployment. The United States, Israel and most European countries want Hezbollah to disarm completely, as required by a United Nations resolution. Hezbollah rejects that idea.

U.S. efforts to pressure Hezbollah have been hampered by the absence of formal diplomatic ties to Iran and just low-grade official channels open with Syria -- the radical group's two main patrons.

"If Hezbollah is not disarmed or rejects a cease-fire agreement, then who's going to come in? Nobody," said Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO who now works in the Washington office of Rand Corp.

Officials traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was headed for a Lebanon crisis meeting in Rome late Tuesday, said that the force they would like to field could not begin its work until the fighting had ebbed enough to allow an unchallenged entry.

"They're not going to fight their way in," a senior Bush administration official told reporters. He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Despite comments by Rice emphasizing urgency in achieving a cease-fire, there was further evidence Tuesday that the administration appeared willing to delay an end to the fighting to give the Israeli military a chance to degrade Hezbollah's ability to fight.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator, said he believed the Israeli response was "in some ways just beginning."

He noted that Israel's military appeared to have made only limited progress in degrading Hezbollah's combat capabilities.

"Hezbollah, because it has been [in] a safe haven for so long, [has] been able to build some pretty stalwart defenses, pretty elaborate bunker systems, and they're fighting hard right now," Crumpton said.

"It's going to take a while, I think, for the Israelis to get in there and deny that space in Lebanon."

U.S. officials signaled that topics of discussion in Rome would include how large an international force should be, what rules it would follow regarding firefights and whether it should operate only in south Lebanon or throughout the country, a senior administration official said.

As they search for countries willing to take part, U.S. officials confront a sticking point: If they get the diplomatic backing for the kind of aggressive peacekeeping force the administration views as essential to a stable peace, fewer nations are likely to volunteer because of the increased combat risk their troops would face.

Turkey, a Muslim country and a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member with a respected army and a good relationship with Israel, has been mentioned as a possible contributor. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has said he would welcome Turkish participation.

In Ankara, the Turkish capital, a senior official said his government was open to the idea, but only if the Israelis and Hezbollah agreed to a cease-fire.

"Obviously, we don't want to send our soldiers into an inferno and we want to know what the rules of engagement would be," said the official, who declined to be identified when discussing the force because of its controversial nature.

Some Turkish commentators said a commitment to the force would offer their country a chance to enhance its standing in the West and its influence in the Middle East.

"Turkey should offer to lead the peacekeeping force in Lebanon ... and become a major player in the Middle East," said Hasan Celal Guzel, a commentator for Radikal, a liberal daily newspaper.

But others worried that even if the government favored participation, the parliament could veto the idea.

They noted that in 2003, Turkey's parliament refused to allow U.S. forces to travel through the country to open a second front against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Italy, a veteran of numerous peacekeeping missions led by the U.N. or NATO, was among the first countries to express willingness to provide troops for a force in Lebanon. Polls in the country indicated that about half the population supported the idea.

But the complexities of following through with its offer were brought into focus this week.

Even as Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi prepared to play host to the talks in Rome -- seen among Italians as a diplomatic coup -- the stability of his center-left government is threatened by a dispute over another peacekeeping mission: the deployment of 1,900 Italian troops to Afghanistan.

Marshall reported from Washington and Wilkinson from Rome. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Jerusalem, Sebastian Rotella in Paris, Peter Spiegel and Doyle McManus in Washington and Janet Stobart in London and special correspondent Amberin Zaman in Ankara contributed to this report.

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