By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 18 -- The United Nations pressed Italy and other European countries Friday to commit troops to lead a vanguard U.N. peacekeeping force of 3,500 that it hopes to deploy in southern Lebanon by Aug. 28 to help enforce a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
Italy's cabinet and two chambers of parliament agreed Friday to send an unspecified number of troops to south Lebanon, but the government requested more time to study the mission's rules of engagement before deciding how many troops it will send and when they will go.
Finland announced Friday that it will send 250 troops by November to help the Lebanese army police a demilitarized zone reaching from Lebanon's border with Israel to the Litani River. U.N. officials are also urging Belgium, Sweden, Turkey and others to participate in the first stage of the U.N. deployment.
"It is very important that Europe steps forward," U.N. Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown told reporters at U.N. headquarters.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi on Thursday to urge Rome to be the major European contributor in a U.N. force that will grow to 15,000 troops over the coming months and consist primarily of soldiers from Europe and the Islamic world.
The United States and Britain made it clear weeks ago that they would not send peacekeepers to southern Lebanon, citing their military burdens in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the United States said it would provide unspecified logistical support to the U.N. mission.
The pause in fighting allowed many in Lebanon to carry out burials Friday in about 40 villages for more than 250 people killed during the war, including a huge funeral procession in Qana, where at least 28 victims of an Israeli airstrike were buried, according to news agencies.
U.N. relief agencies stepped up efforts in Lebanon, while Hezbollah officials started distributing cash payments of up to $12,000 to families whose homes were destroyed by Israeli air attacks, news agencies said.
More than 400,000 people began the "dangerous journey back home," taxing relief workers in the heavily damaged southern suburbs of Beirut, a top U.N. emergency relief official, Margareta Wahlstrom, told the Security Council. Although the cease-fire increased access for U.N. relief workers, some 8,500 pieces of unexploded artillery, missiles and cluster munitions "resulted in maiming injuries and even deaths among returnees," she said.
After weeks of tense negotiations lead by the United States and France, the U.N. Security Council voted on Aug. 11 to adopt Resolution 1701, which called for a halt to a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah and the creation of a reinforced U.N. peacekeeping mission to help implement a cease-fire.
The resolution calls for expanding the 2,000-strong U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, which has been in south Lebanon since 1978, to 15,000 troops, and giving it much tougher rules of engagement. Its main mission will be to help the Lebanese army fill a security vacuum left by the withdrawal of Israel and the Hezbollah militia.
U.N. officials had anticipated that France would lead a mostly European advance force, but Malloch Brown said Italy is the only major European power to make a "firm commitment" to provide "frontline troops" in the vital first phase of the deployment. "It's clear they will be part of the first wave of troops," he said.
Malloch Brown said the United Nations is now looking to poorer countries -- including Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Nepal -- that have pledged nearly 4,000 troops but are unable to get their forces to southern Lebanon.
"You want a force that is broadly acceptable in its composition to both sides, which is why we have talked about this European-Muslim core to the force," he said.
France is planning to send a unit of 200 military engineers, in addition to 200 U.N. peacekeepers currently serving in southern Lebanon. President Jacques Chirac said that the force of 1,700 French troops stationed off the coast of Lebanon will continue to help supply U.N. peacekeepers.
President Bush prodded Chirac and other world leaders to increase their military contributions, saying that the United States will "work with nations to step up to the plate and do what they voted to do at the United Nations, and that is to provide robust international forces to help the Lebanese army retake the south." Bush also noted that France has sent mixed signals about its commitment to help restore calm in southern Lebanon. "France, they said they'd send some troops," he said. "We hope they send more."
Lebanon, a former French protectorate, also urged France to reconsider its military commitment. "We are expecting more from France," Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh told the British Broadcasting Corp.
French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie defended her government's decision to play a limited role in the U.N. mission.
"I can't let it be said or implied that France is not doing its duty in the Lebanese crisis," she told the French radio station RTL. "I'd like to remind you of the experience of painful operations where U.N. forces did not have a sufficiently precise mission or the means to react."