By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 15 -- U.N. and U.S. officials warned Tuesday that governments that have pledged to assemble a peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon are not moving swiftly enough to fill a dangerous power vacuum there.
Four days after the Security Council authorized 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help the Lebanese army intervene between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters, not one country has formally committed to sending troops.
Senior U.N. officials said that while many countries have expressed interest in participating, key powers such as France, Italy, Turkey and others must commit to a vanguard force of as many as 3,500 peacekeepers within two weeks to avert a resumption of violence.
"I think the next few days are still indeed quite dangerous," Jean-Marie Guehenno, a French national who heads the U.N. peacekeeping department, said Tuesday. "You can see things going out of control on the ground that jeopardize the whole thing."
France, which has been asked to provide the "backbone" of a new force, has expressed "some hesitancy" about committing to lead it before knowing which other countries will serve, a senior U.N. official said. But the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate negotiations, said other countries will not sign on until France agrees to lead the operation.
A spokesman from the French mission to the United Nations declined to comment, saying that a decision would have to be made by French President Jacques Chirac.
Guehenno voiced confidence that France will agree to participate in the peacekeeping operation, noting that a French general is scheduled to arrive in New York on Wednesday to begin discussions on operational details. Another senior U.N. official said that the world body is hopeful that France and other countries will offer formal promises to send troops at a meeting Thursday.
The difficulties highlighted the challenge of moving a large U.N. force into place on short notice. Past U.N. efforts to send foreign troops to hot spots around the world have required several months of preparation. Guehenno said it could take months before the full U.N. force is in place.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack voiced concern at the prospect of a sluggish deployment. "Nobody believes that deploying the force in months is acceptable," he said. "This needs to be done on a much more urgent basis than that."
C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said the United States is planning to provide significant reconstruction aid to Lebanon and training for the Lebanese army. In an op-ed article in Wednesday's Washington Post, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote that the United States is increasing immediate humanitarian aid to $50 million.
U.S. officials, however, have ruled out placing American troops under U.N. command in Lebanon.
The United States already is slated to spend $10.6 million to aid the Lebanese armed forces and provide vehicle and helicopter parts, body armor and small-arms ammunition, according to the Pentagon. The focus of the training, Pentagon officials said, would be to deter Hezbollah attacks and infiltration of the military, as well as to provide improved border security in the ravaged southern areas of the country.
U.N. officials in New York said they are prepared to scrap many of their procedures -- including the lengthy negotiation of "status of forces" agreements -- to speed up the deployment. They also said the first peacekeeping forces should be from countries prepared to quickly equip and transport the troops without assistance.
Guehenno said a meeting between Israeli and Lebanese army officers in Ras Naqoura, Lebanon, went smoothly. Guehenno said that the Lebanese army was prepared to move its troops south to the Litani River as soon as Wednesday and could begin moving into southern Lebanon as soon as Thursday.
The two sides agreed to a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops, beginning just south of the Litani River in the village of Marjayoun and then spreading toward Lebanon's border with Israel.
It calls for Israeli troops to hand over control of Lebanese territory to U.N. peacekeepers, who would then help the Lebanese army enforce a demilitarized zone. The process could start as soon as this week, with some of the 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers already stationed in southern Lebanon.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the ultimate presence of 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers, in support of an additional 15,000 Lebanese army troops, "creates a density which has a strategic meaning."
"You don't have perfects," Peres said after a meeting with Rice in Washington. "But if . . . the Lebanese army will deploy itself along the border with Israel in the southern part of Lebanon, and there will be as many soldiers as promised, with new authorities to handle weapons, it can be a great help to Lebanon and to peace."
As U.N. officials struggled to assemble the new peacekeeping force, they also sought to diminish expectations about its role. On Monday, President Bush said the U.N. force would help undercut the ability of Iran and Syria to supply arms to Hezbollah by securing the Syrian border and ports. "In other words, part of the mandate and part of the mission of the troops, the UNIFIL troops, will be to seal off the Syrian border," Bush said.
Guehenno described a more modest U.N. role. He said he is considering sending a small number of customs experts and special police to advise Lebanese customs officials at some key entry points.
Sealing the Lebanese borders "is not something that the U.N. can do," he said. "What the U.N. can do is help the government of Lebanon manage its border in a way that is in conformity with the resolutions of the council."
Guehenno also cautioned that while U.N. peacekeepers are authorized to use force, they "are not going to forcibly disarm Hezbollah," adding: "That is not in the resolution. I don't think there would be many troop contributors who would think that would be a wise approach."
Staff writers Josh White and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.