Lebanon Peacekeepers Met With Skepticism

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

BAZOURIYA, Lebanon -- There are two faces to the U.N. force today in Lebanon, ensuring a cease-fire that ended 33 days of war with Israel. One has a certain swagger: more than 4,800 soldiers, 14 French battle tanks, four 155mm artillery guns, 10 Italian amphibious assault vehicles and an array of armored personnel carriers. The other is a contingent of several bored-looking Italian soldiers in blue berets watching traffic pass, their roadside stop demarcated by red-and-white tape within eyeshot of Hezbollah's yellow banners.

"They're just standing there," said Muslim Srour, sipping coffee at his gas station down the road.

Across an uncertain landscape still strewn with the war's destruction, the U.N. force that has landed on Lebanon's coast by sea and air is perhaps the most dramatic change of recent weeks. As a symbol and show of force, it is the key to what U.S. officials say will be a departure from the status quo ante here. Its officials are confident: They have a mandate, the manpower and equipment to do their job.

But the precise nature of that job has become one of the crucial, unanswered questions in the war's aftermath. Hezbollah's militia, taking a low profile even by its own secretive standards, is wary of pressure on the U.N. force to exceed what Hezbollah foresees as a benign, unobtrusive presence in territory the group considers its own. The United Nations is wrestling with questions of sovereignty and how to defer to a Lebanese army it outstrips in training and equipment. And U.N. peacekeepers face a climate sometimes redolent of Baghdad in the weeks after Saddam Hussein's fall in April 2003, filled with suspicion and skepticism over true intentions.

"We'll take care of them like they're our own children," the 50-year-old Srour said, gesturing at the soldiers.

He smiled before speaking again. "As long as they treat us like they would a father," he added.

As envisioned in the U.N.-backed cease-fire that ended fighting Aug. 14, the 28-year-old peacekeeping contingent known as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon would grow from about 2,000 troops to as many as 15,000. They would join a projected 15,000 Lebanese soldiers in the strip of land south of the Litani River that was effectively a state within a state controlled by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim-led organization that wields authority here as a political party, social service organization and militia.

So far, 4,800 soldiers have arrived from France, Italy and Spain. They have joined more than 10,000 Lebanese troops already deployed in what has become a militarized, international trusteeship over the former war zone. By comparison, there are 16,000 U.N. troops in Congo, a country 225 times bigger than all of Lebanon with 15 times more people.

U.N. officials have said their task is not to disarm Hezbollah, but rather to monitor the cease-fire, assist humanitarian aid efforts and support the Lebanese army, which has deployed in the south for the first time in a generation. But ambiguity has shaded some statements -- the French defense minister told a Lebanese newspaper the south must be "entirely controlled" by the Lebanese army and U.N. forces -- and even within the United Nations, there is a measure of concern that the rules of engagement may be overly aggressive.

"Hezbollah still doesn't know the real intentions of these forces," said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general. "If this deployment on the ground, if the rules of engagement on the ground contradict what Hezbollah has in mind for its future role, for its future strategy, they will clash at some point down the road," he said.

Last week, Italian troops became the first of the new U.N. forces to patrol from their base at Jabal Maroun, where a makeshift market has sprung up outside their encampment, along a hilly pine- and olive-studded terrain that has reminded some of the soldiers of their native Italy.

"Welcome aboard," declared navy Capt. Rosario W. Guerrisi, smiling at a maritime reference. "We are Italian marines."

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