Lebanese Premier Seeks U.S. Help in Lifting Blockade

Traffic has slowed to a crawl in parts of Lebanon after routes such as this bridge near the port city of Sidon, were destroyed in fighting.
Traffic has slowed to a crawl in parts of Lebanon after routes such as this bridge near the port city of Sidon, were destroyed in fighting. (By Mohammed Zaatari -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 24, 2006

BEIRUT, Aug. 23 -- Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Wednesday that he has asked the United States for help in getting Israel to lift the blockade it imposed on Lebanon during the recently concluded war with Hezbollah.

Siniora's appeal, which Beirut newspapers said was made to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reflected growing irritation among Lebanese leaders at continued restrictions under which the Israeli military controls all air and sea transport in and out of the country despite the U.N. cease-fire that came into effect 10 days ago.

Israeli officials have insisted they will lift the blockade only when international peacekeeping forces have deployed at Lebanese ports and airports to guarantee they are not used to import weapons for the Hezbollah militia, which battled Israel in southern Lebanon for more than a month. Lebanese authorities have increased the number of army troops and security forces along the border with Syria and pledged to police air and sea traffic more closely, but Israel has held firm on its demand that imports be inspected by foreigners.

"I tell you there is a diplomatic battle on this issue as harsh as anything on the ground," Siniora said at a news conference at the Serail, his Ottoman-era headquarters.

The blockade has been particularly painful for Lebanon, whose economy depends on the free movement of people and goods. Only a few commercial flights have been permitted to resume from Beirut's international airport, which was damaged during the war but now is repaired and ready to resume its role as a Middle East hub. Similarly, the once-busy Beirut port has been kept under strict controls enforced by Israeli gunships in the Mediterranean.

Ground transport to Syria has resumed. But extensive bombing damage to roads and bridges has slowed traffic to a crawl in much of the country, creating giant traffic jams on the main routes leading from Beirut.

Dramatizing the anger here, Labor Minister Tarrad Hamadeh of the Hezbollah party suggested Tuesday that Arab governments should send their planes and ships toward Lebanon in defiance of the Israeli blockade. His suggestion was not taken seriously, but the resentment it portrayed is widely shared in Siniora's government.

Siniora did not say what response he got from Rice. But he said the United States has the power to help Lebanon get normal transportation going again and suggested the Bush administration was not providing all the assistance Lebanon needs.

"The United States can do more," he said.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday that Rice telephoned Olmert, who told her that an international force had to be in control of the area before the naval blockade would be removed.

The issue has dragged on in large part because of the difficulty in assembling reinforcements for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The 2,000-strong peacekeeping corps was assigned by the U.N. cease-fire resolution to work with 15,000 Lebanese army troops to guarantee security along Lebanon's borders. European officials gathered in Brussels on Wednesday for more discussions on raising the reinforcements, which are supposed to bring the joint force to a strength of about 30,000.

European nations have been reluctant to volunteer the 15,000 foreign troops envisioned for the force. Italian officials have indicated they may be willing to contribute up to 3,000 soldiers and play a leadership role in organizing the force, after the French government backed away from initial indications that it was prepared to lead the troops and committed only 200 soldiers.

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