French boost troops for Lebanon

Posted in Broader Middle East | 25-Aug-06 | Author: James Kanter and Craig S. Smit| Source: International Herald Tribune

United Nations peacekeepers from France, and an armored personnel carrier, disembark from a landing vessel in the port of the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, next to the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, or UNIFIL, Friday Aug. 25, 2006.
PARIS France pledged an additional 1,600 troops to the United Nations multinational peacekeeping force for Lebanon late Thursday amid mounting criticism that France had failed to do enough to police a cease-fire that it had helped broker.

President Jacques Chirac made the announcement in a televised address to the nation after his country initially offered just 200 new troops to the force, which already includes 200 French soldiers.

The earlier offer, coming after France took a leading role in writing the UN resolution that authorized the force and brought an end to more than a month of fighting between Israel and Lebanon, had a chilling effect on UN efforts to raise peacekeeping troops from other nations, UN officials say. It also won France widespread scorn.

At the same time, Italy stepped forward with an offer of up to 3,000 soldiers, challenging France's offer to command the peacekeepers. A French general heads the current UN force in Lebanon, which will be reinforced and will be given a broader mandate under the new UN resolution.

On Thursday, Chirac repeated the French offer to lead the mission.

"France is ready, if the United Nations wishes it, to continue to command this force," Chirac said, adding that the numbers of troops could be revised over the next six months. "In a situation where everyone is weighing up the difficulty, France will assume its responsibilities in Lebanon."

Chirac's announcement came a day before a special meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels at which other EU members are expected to make firm commitments to the force. France's sizable commitment is likely to lend momentum to that meeting and encourage other European nations to make significant contributions of their own.

While Europe has been criticized for moving slowly in responding to the UN call for peacekeepers, European and UN diplomats stress that the multinational force, which the resolution says could be as large as 15,000 troops, was never intended to be entirely European. UN officials say only that Europe must form a "credible core" of the force and Europeans say they expect their troops to make up about a third of the total number.

It is also being put together faster than almost any peacekeeping force in history, UN officials say. Contributing countries will forgo the normal process of peacekeeping force formation, which can take as long as three months, in order to get an initial wave of 3,000 fresh soldiers on the ground in Lebanon as early as month's end.

"France has been criticized for being too slow, but in fact it has been the fastest-moving nation in providing not only humanitarian help to Lebanon but also ground troops to the field," said Philippe Le Corre, an adviser to France's defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie.

In mid-July, France dispatched 1,700 marines to help evacuate civilians trapped in Lebanon, and that force has remained to help supply the existing United Nations International Force in Lebanon.

France also pushed hard on the diplomatic front, helping the United States draft the resolution that has brought a cease-fire and authorized the expanded peacekeeping force with a stronger mandate. It has also been first in its military response.

The country's earlier offer of 200 troops to the peacekeeping force, while ridiculed, was implemented immediately. They were the first fresh troops to arrive in Lebanon to reinforce the existing 2,000-strong UN force.

Nonetheless, the country's generals, mindful of the casualties suffered as part of UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and southern Lebanon, forced the government to pause in coming up with a strong commitment. Having said that it wanted to lead the peacekeeping force, its offer of just 200 troops stunned UN diplomats and cooled the enthusiasm of other countries that were hoping that the French would form the core of the force.

On Thursday, Chirac called for a fair division of labor in creating a peacekeeping force. "I have talked to my colleagues in order to convince them to play their part in this," he said.

Earlier in the day, President George W. Bush told the Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, by telephone that Washington was leaning on other allies to provide troops.

"I expect that, reluctant or not, smiling or not, there will be an ample European contribution," Prodi said in an interview with RAI state radio, according to Reuters.

"Bush is making a strong effort to put pressure on friendly countries in order to broaden the number of participants in the mission," Prodi said in a statement.

The Finnish foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said Thursday that reinforcements for the UN peacekeeping force could be imminent.

"We would like to see the first reinforcements for Unifil arrive within a week if possible," Tuomioja said in Berlin, using the abbreviation for the UN force, according to The Associated Press.

European governments are apprehensive that peacekeepers could come under fire from both Israeli and Hezbollah forces. A key obstacle to the deployment has been the demand by European governments for clear rules on when peacekeepers can open fire and disarm fighters.

The existing peacekeeping mission in Lebanon operates largely as an observer mission.

To assuage those apprehensions, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, is expected to present more robust rules of engagement for new peacekeepers on Friday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, according to a report in Le Monde, the French newspaper.

But Massimo D'Alema, the Italian foreign minister, suggested Thursday in Rome that rules of engagement were already clear enough because the UN had authorized the force to use weapons in self-defense and to defend civilians.

"If the international forces find themselves confronted with acts of hostility, they should inevitably react with force, as shown by the international mandate," said D'Alema.

"If somebody violates the 'Blue Line' with hostile acts, the international forces should react as foreseen by the rules of engagement," D'Alema said.

D'Alema pledged Italy's willingness to enforce the UN resolution on Lebanon and urged other EU members to do the same because the stability of the Middle East should be a chief concern for Europeans.

"We are convinced that this could represent a change for the entire region," said D'Alema at a joint press conference in Rome with the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

Livni echoed similar sentiments, saying there "is a window of opportunity for a new era in Lebanon and a chance to change the rules of the game." She said that the "interests of Lebanon and Israel are the same as that of the international community."

James Kanter of the International Herald Tribune and Craig S. Smith of The New York Times reported from Paris, and Peter Kiefer of The New York Times contributed from Rome.