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."
"We're putting in the assets required to get the job done -- no more and no less," Annan told reporters here in response to questions about Chirac's statement. He added that "15,000 are going to deploy."
U.N. plans call for the first 3,500 troops to reach Lebanon in about a week, but Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said Friday that the remaining European forces are unlikely to reach the country for another two to three months.
It could be several more months after that before the entire force is fully operational, according to U.N. officials.
In addition to Italy and France, Spain has offered about 1,000 troops, and Poland said it will send 500. Finland, Denmark, Germany, Hungary and Greece each have promised small numbers of personnel.
Approximately 2,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops are in southern Lebanon and along the Israeli border as part of UNIFIL, which was created in 1978.
The United States and Britain have refused to provide ground troops, saying theirs are already overtaxed in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush has said the U.S. military will provide communications, logistics and intelligence assistance.
Britain is offering two AWACS communications and surveillance planes, six Jaguar combat jets, a frigate and use of a British base in Cyprus for staging, according to the country's U.N. ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry.
Chirac on Friday continued to defend the delay in his decision to make a significant contribution to the peacekeeping force. While France was instrumental in writing the U.N. cease-fire resolution and initially said it would send 2,000 troops to southern Lebanon, Chirac drew domestic and international criticism when he then offered only about 400 soldiers.
"It would have been utterly irresponsible to take a decision that would jeopardize the lives of French troops without having the guarantee that they would be deployed under optimal conditions from the point of view of their safety," Chirac told reporters during a joint appearance at the Elysee Palace with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I don't know how I would have been judged if I had decided irrationally without thinking about a minimum of guarantees."
Annan said the United Nations has adjusted some of its rules of engagement for the peacekeepers to meet concerns that the troops be authorized to shoot to defend themselves and civilian populations under what could be murky circumstances.
"Troops are not going in there to disarm -- let's be clear," he said. "Disarming Hezbollah cannot be done by force. It has to be political agreements among the Lebanese."
At the same time, Annan warned during the closed meeting with the European foreign ministers that peacekeepers "may well find themselves engaged in military action at the tactical level," according to a copy of his address. He cited as an example a hypothetical situation in which "combatants, or those illicitly moving weapons, forcibly resist a demand from them, or from the Lebanese army, to disarm."
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris contributed to this report.