By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A15
ST. PETERSBURG, July 17 -- U.N. and European leaders pressed Monday for an international peacekeeping force to be sent to Lebanon to defuse the conflict with Israel, an approach that ended in failure two decades ago when a U.S.-led foreign troop contingent was driven out by violence.
At the instigation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, the Group of Eight industrial countries over the weekend asked the U.N. Security Council to study creation of an "international security/monitoring presence." As the G-8 summit wrapped up Monday, Blair lobbied President Bush and other skeptics to embrace the idea, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan endorsed it.
In Washington, the State Department announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will make an emergency visit to the Middle East to seek a settlement. Her dates and itinerary are still to be set, department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
The call for an international force emerged as perhaps the biggest surprise of the G-8 summit, which wrapped up Monday after a weekend dominated by the latest Middle East violence.
The G-8 members -- the United States, Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Canada and Russia -- reached a compromise plan Sunday that calls on Hezbollah and Hamas to release Israeli captives and stop firing rockets into Israel, and tells Israel to end its attacks and free arrested Palestinian officials. The international force would be sent into a buffer zone separating the sides in southern Lebanon only after fighting ended, officials said.
"The blunt reality is that this violence is not going to stop unless we create the conditions for the cessation of violence," Blair said after meeting with Annan, who attended the summit as a guest. "The only way is if we have a deployment of international forces that can stop bombardment coming into Israel."
Blair was overheard on a live microphone at the closing G-8 lunch appealing to Bush personally. "The thing that's really difficult is we can't stop this unless you get this international presence agreed," Blair told him.
Bush did not respond audibly, but White House aides said the approach in some form may be acceptable to the United States. The United States and its allies are considering a variety of options, including a U.N. or European Union force, and the subject is to be discussed at the United Nations on Thursday.
"There are a lot of people with various ideas," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It hasn't been thoroughly talked through. There's a concept that you need that southern border region free from threat. The Lebanese armed forces may not be up to that, and the issue is how do you help them out?"
Still, John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, raised skeptical questions in New York. Israeli officials expressed opposition and the idea seemed unlikely to be accepted by Hezbollah, which operates in southern Lebanon with little interference from the Lebanese government.
Experts who have served in Lebanon dismissed the idea of an international force unless it has the full backing of both Israel and Hezbollah. "This is a monumentally stupid idea," said Augustus Richard Norton, who served with a small U.N. observer force that has been deployed in southern Lebanon since Israel's first incursion in 1978. He is a Middle East specialist at Boston University.
"It's a non-starter," Timur Goksel, who served 24 years with the U.N. force and now teaches in Beirut, said by telephone. "If the intention is to observe, there is already a force in place. If they are talking of a deterrent force to prevent fighting, it will immediately be seen as an occupation force here. And when you have an occupation force, no matter what your flag, even under the United Nations, that's when the trouble starts. This is a most ridiculous idea. Nobody will accept it."
There are two main scenarios for a foreign force. One is to expand the existing U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL. The 2,000-member contingent, which has suffered 257 fatalities of its own, has usually been unable to do more than watch when fighting erupts. Israel rolled right by it during its 1982 invasion.
UNIFIL's limitations were underscored over the past week when it basically became stranded. A UNIFIL statement Monday complained that it was unable to supply food and water to its own troops, much less help deliver humanitarian aid to civilians, because Israel had not guaranteed free passage.
The other scenario is a fresh, stronger multinational force. But that too has been tried in Lebanon, with disastrous results. After Israel's 1982 invasion, the United States led a four-nation force with France, Italy and Britain in Beirut as part of a cease-fire. The U.S. force was gradually sucked into Lebanon's civil war. Shortly after a U.S. warship off the coast fired at a Muslim militia on behalf of rival Christians, a suicide bomber in 1983 destroyed a Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines, in the single largest loss of military personnel since World War II.
Supporters said any new force would have to be more robust than UNIFIL. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi suggested it would require at least 10,000 troops and a broad mandate. Chirac said it should be charged with enforcing a 2004 Security Council resolution ordering Hezbollah to disarm.
Israel would almost certainly insist that the United States provide a major portion of the contingent and command it. But regional experts question both the U.S. will and the ability to provide forces. "The military is overstretched. Most of the army is wrapped up in Iraq," said Norton, a retired army colonel and former West Point professor. "A deployment in Lebanon would potentially be interminable."
Wright reported from Washington.