France Sets Big Force for Lebanon
Friday, August 25, 2006
PARIS, Aug. 24 -- French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday that France would commit 2,000 troops to a new international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. The decision breaks a stalemate that has held up the dispatch of soldiers seen by diplomats as crucial to maintaining the 11-day-old cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel.
Chirac's announcement in a nationally televised address followed days of intense negotiations with the United Nations, Lebanon and Israel over European concerns that the force would have no clear mandate and inadequate rights to open fire in defense of itself or civilians.
"We obtained the necessary clarifications from the U.N. on the chain of command, which needs to be simple, coherent and reactive," he said, "and the rules of engagement, which must guarantee the freedom of movement of the force and its ability to operate when confronted with hostile conditions."
France helped broker the U.N. cease-fire and initially indicated it would commit 2,000 troops to help maintain the truce. But Chirac was chastised at home and abroad when he later said he would dispatch only 200 engineers to augment the 200 French troops serving in an existing U.N. monitoring force on the Lebanon-Israel border.
Many European countries have expressed reluctance to take part in the operation out of fear that their soldiers would become enmeshed in shooting conflicts with Hezbollah or Israel. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is scheduled to meet with European foreign ministers in Brussels on Friday in an effort to pressure more countries to commit troops.
U.N. officials hope the force will eventually total 15,000 foreign troops. It will be an expansion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, the 28-year-old U.N. monitoring force that operates along the Lebanon-Israel border with about 2,000 troops and a French commanding general. It would operate with 15,000 Lebanese troops as well.
Chirac said he hoped France's decision Thursday would spur other countries to join the force, including the United States and Britain. Both have said they are too taxed in Iraq and Afghanistan to take part.
In a statement issued in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he is vacationing, President Bush gave no sign of reversing that decision. But he called Chirac's move "an important step towards finalizing preparations to deploy the United Nations Interim Force of Lebanon" and called on other countries to join in.
So far, Italy is the only other European country to make a major commitment, offering to send as many as 3,000 troops and to command the force.
But the direction of the expanded force appears to be in French hands. French and U.N. officials said French Maj. Gen. Alain Pelligrini will retain command of the U.N. mission until his term ends next February. U.N. officials said an Italian general will head a new military command center at U.N. headquarters to map out strategy for the operation.
The French military, with a long, emotional history in Lebanon and in other peacekeeping venues, was particularly wary of dispatching large numbers of troops into southern Lebanon, according to French officials and analysts. The French lost 58 troops in the same Hezbollah suicide bombings that killed 241 U.S. service members in Beirut in 1983. Eighty-four French troops in the U.N. mission in Bosnia were killed in the 1990s, in part because they were not allowed to defend themselves assertively.
"We've been there and saw what happened in '83," said Francois Heisbourg, a military analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "The only difference between now and then is the situation is much worse now."
French officials said Chirac won pledges from the United Nations, Lebanon and Israel that peacekeeping troops would be allowed to open fire to defend themselves or to intervene if civilians were facing imminent threat. Peacekeeping forces in several previous operations around the globe have been criticized for allowing combatants to massacre civilians because of rules that prevented soldiers from interfering.
Chirac's announcement Thursday came as he was being savaged in both the domestic and international media.
"We are once again made fun of because of Chirac, who took strong positions to send troops to Lebanon during the conflict," said Alexandre Dret, a 28-year-old physician from the Paris suburb of Suresnes. "Sending 200 French soldiers seemed ridiculous. You either send enough people or none, but not 200."
At the same time, Dret added, "I think everybody is worried about seeing French troops getting killed there. . . . The conflict is not over yet and it's dangerous to send our soldiers there."
Staff writers Peter Baker in Kennebunkport and Colum Lynch at the United Nations and researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris contributed to this report.