Although wary of multinational peacekeeping operations, the Bush administration is working with allies to find a way to insert a robust military force and a civilian international presence in Lebanon to strengthen the frail government and break the grip of Hezbollah, U.S. and foreign diplomats say.
The peacekeepers would be positioned along Lebanon’s southern border in an effort to prevent future Hezbollah attacks on Israel, whereas the civilian officials would be scattered elsewhere in the Arab country, including at key entry points, to halt the flow of military equipment from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah, the officials say.
First proposed by the United Nations, the international peacekeeping effort has become the focal point of American diplomacy, which has been limited since fighting broke out a week ago between Israel and Hezbollah.
Diplomats say they believe that there is significant support among some European and Arab governments for mobilizing a strong international presence in Lebanon to help end a confrontation that otherwise could bleed the region.
At the same time, such a plan would not take effect overnight. Israeli officials have said they plan to continue their offensive indefinitely, and the United States, Israel’s most powerful ally, has made it clear that it opposes an immediate cease-fire.
Moreover, U.S. officials are keenly aware of the difficulties involved in peacekeeping efforts. Other such operations, including the U.N. force that has been in southern Lebanon for many years, have often proved ineffective because of problems fielding a capable force, working out rules of combat and gaining local cooperation.
One U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that while the Bush administration was committed to trying to set up the force, it had been drawn into the undertaking “kicking and screaming.”
Israel, often wary of allowing others a role in matters affecting its security, thinks the peacekeeping mission could work. Though some officials at first criticized the idea, the government now views it as “something we’ll support,” said one Israeli official who requested anonymity when discussing the pending diplomatic efforts.
U.N. envoys Wednesday urged the international community to decide on a multinational buffer force quickly.
“We are in a hurry. It has to happen fast,” said Terje Roed-Larsen, a veteran Mideast mediator and a special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He was speaking at a news conference in Madrid after visits to Beirut and Jerusalem.
To be effective, a new force probably would have to be several times as large as the 2,000-troop U.N. contingent -- known as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL -- that is in the region, officials said. It also probably would need highly trained soldiers, such as those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and rules of engagement that would allow its troops to intervene to stop hostilities, officials said.
The proposed international force would work side by side with the Lebanese army, which is weaker than Hezbollah and has no presence in the Shiite Muslim-dominated region in southern Lebanon, where the Islamist militant group has its base, officials say.
Diplomats are proposing to use such a force to create a buffer zone extending about 12 miles into Lebanon from the border with Israel to put the Jewish state out of range of Hezbollah’s shorter-range missiles. Lebanese officials have given some indication of a willingness to work with Israel to secure their border.
Allied governments are also talking about introducing a corps of international monitors, or a separate security force, to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining long-range missiles that could strike Israel. These inspectors could be posted at the international airport and at seaports, and in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, adjacent to Syria. The Israeli government says Hezbollah has Iranian-made Zelzal missiles analysts believe have a range up to about 100 miles, though they have apparently not been used.
A halt to arms shipments is viewed as key by Israel’s government, which believes the buffer zone would not eliminate the threat posed to the nation, Israeli officials say.
Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, was asked Wednesday about proposals to build a new peacekeeping force and limit the flow of arms into Lebanon. He declined to discuss specifics but said many ideas were being floated by diplomats.
“Parties of goodwill want to make sure that if and when there’s a chance to go ahead and make sure that southern Lebanon is secure, it’s done in such a way that guarantees long-term peace, does not allow the terrorist conditions to rearise in that area, and provides the conditions that will allow the [Lebanese] government to do its job effectively,” Snow said.
Israeli media reports Wednesday said the proposal for an international force in Lebanon was put forth as part of a comprehensive package when a team of U.N. mediators visited Israel this week.
The Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported that other elements of the U.N.-proposed deal included the freeing of captured Israeli soldiers; a cessation of Hezbollah rocket fire at Israel; the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails; and an Israeli withdrawal from the so-called Shabaa Farms, a sliver of disputed land on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, where Syria, Lebanon and Israeli-occupied territory touch.
The U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the administration had given a “green light” to Israel to continue attacking Hezbollah as it judges necessary. American officials view the group as a tool of Iran and believe it could be enlisted to conduct terrorist attacks on U.S. personnel and assets in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The official said that on the first day of fighting last week, the administration briefly sought to rein in Israel’s attacks, with the aim of giving the Lebanese government a chance to move against Hezbollah. But after a few hours, the administration changed course and halted its pressure, the official said.
The Israeli official said he believed that it would take “awhile, probably weeks” before the Israel Defense Forces would be satisfied that they had destroyed enough of Hezbollah’s arsenal and infrastructure.
Even if the fighting continues for some time, U.S. officials said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may travel to the region as early as this weekend to discuss ways to defuse the crisis.
Planning for a new peacekeeping force raises the issue of whether the United States, which suffered bitter losses during Lebanon’s civil war, would again send troops to the country. Two hundred forty-one U.S. military personnel were killed in Beirut in 1983 in a suicide truck bombing of a Marine barracks blamed on Hezbollah.
Many European countries consider themselves overstretched militarily, with troop deployments in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. Still, several European countries, veterans of international peacekeeping missions led by the U.N. or by NATO, said they would be willing to send troops to the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Diplomats said Britain and France appeared strongly supportive of the idea. A poll published Wednesday in Italy showed that slightly more than 50% of those surveyed supported the inclusion of Italian troops in any such deployment. Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema has said Italy would consider such a commitment.
In Israel, analysts who have watched the current U.N. force in Lebanon expressed less urgency than U.N. officials about discussing the idea of a new deployment.
They noted that the Israeli government had long complained that the peacekeepers did little or nothing to prevent Hezbollah from moving about freely and staging attacks.
“There were incidents in which UNIFIL was seen as having abetted [Hezbollah] or made it more difficult for Israel to identify a coming attack by what they call the Lebanese resistance,” said Hillel Frisch, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
Partly as a result of the U.N. force’s history, he said, “Israel has major doubts as to whether an international force would have staying power, and at what price.”
An American or NATO component might make such a force more palatable to Israel, he and other analysts said.
“It’s a risky business -- it’s hard to believe that without a strong American presence, that such an international force would have any staying power, any kind of willingness to maintain its mandate,” Frisch said.
Richter reported from Washington and King from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.
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Fighting grinds away
The conflict entered its second week with Israeli airstrikes on targets throughout Lebanon and Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Hezbollah and Israeli forces engaged in their first ground battle amid signs that a larger ground war could be imminent.
Israeli warplanes hit a bunker allegedly used by senior Hezbollah leaders, financial institutions in Beirut and Nabatiyeh and an upscale Christian neighborhood in Beirut popular with tourists. In the southern village of Srifa, 17 residents are reported killed. Beirut’s airport is struck again.
Nazareth joins the list of cities hit by Hezbollah rockets; Haifa is hit again.
Israeli troops cross the border and engage Hezbollah militants near Aitaroun. Southern Lebanese are warned to leave the area. With small groups of ground forces operating at the border and signs of a buildup beginning there, speculation rises over whether Israel is preparing a large-scale ground invasion.
About 900 Americans leave on a chartered liner and 100 others are flown by Marine Corps helicopters to Cyprus. The Navy ship Nashville is scheduled to arrive today to assist. The U.S. plans to evacuate more than 6,000 Americans by this weekend.
Estimated numbers of foreigners evacuated since Tuesday:
Denmark, 4,100; Germany, 3,000; Greece, 3,000; Sweden, 1,500; U.S., 1,200; France, 800; Romania, 470; Italy, 400; Russia, 270; Austria, 250.
Israeli forces kill 12 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. A U.N. report says Israel has launched 168 airstrikes against Gaza and Palestinian militants have fired 177 rockets into Israel.
Lebanese: Reportedly more than 300
Israelis: 29, including 14 military personnel
Palestinians: About 110
Sources: Associated Press, BBC, Reuters, Times reporting
Los Angeles Times