Europe Offering Bulk of U.N. Force

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 26, 2006

BRUSSELS, Aug. 25 -- European countries agreed Friday to provide about half the troops for a new 15,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, with a significant contingent expected to arrive within a week, officials announced after an emergency meeting here.

"Europe is providing the backbone of the force," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told reporters after the session with European foreign ministers. "We can now begin to put together a credible force."

The commitments from reluctant European governments followed nearly two weeks of intense prodding and pleading by Annan. There have been concerns that the tenuous cease-fire between Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and Israel could unravel without the rapid intervention of an international peacekeeping force.

The majority of the European troops will be supplied by Italy, which has offered as many as 3,000 soldiers, and France, which Thursday promised a total of 2,000. An advance group of about 185 French troops, from engineering units, arrived in Lebanon on Friday, joining a small group already in the country.

Even with the total European commitment of between 5,600 and 6,900 troops, Annan conceded that major obstacles remain for deploying the international force alongside Lebanese army units in southern Lebanon and Israeli units on the border.

Annan, who is eager to include Muslims in the peacekeeping force, said he is prepared to accept offers of troops from predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, despite insistence from Israel that it will not accept the presence of peacekeepers from the three countries, which do not recognize the Jewish state.

The U.N. leader said that in light of the "struggle" in obtaining troop commitments from European countries, he could not afford to turn down governments that were willing to fill the remaining ranks of the planned force.

"We will take the best peacekeepers where we can find them," Annan said. "We don't have pools sitting in barracks you can choose and pick from."

He said all three countries' armies had extensive experience in international peacekeeping missions, and that those forces could be deployed in areas where they would not come into contact with Israeli soldiers. Annan also said he is discussing troop deployments with Turkey, a Muslim nation and member of the NATO alliance. Turkey has diplomatic and economic relations with Israel.

The French, who Annan said will lead the force until next February, have openly disagreed with the U.N. chief on the proper size of the force.

French President Jacques Chirac said at a Paris news conference Friday that he believes 15,000 troops is "a totally excessive figure" because of the relatively small patch of territory where soldiers will operate, suggesting instead a maximum of 6,000 troops.

"How can we have 15,000 Lebanese troops being deployed as well as 15,000 UNIFIL forces?" Chirac said, referring to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. "I'm not sure there's room for both."

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