Rome Meeting: Lebanon Needs Strong U.N. Force

In Rome, foreign ministers from the U.S., Europe and many Arab countries agree that an international force is needed to bring peace to Lebanon. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the ministers wanted a force under a U.N. mandate, with a strong and robust capability.

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DON GONYEA, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In Rome today, foreign ministers from the U.S., Europe, and many Arab countries agreed that an international force is needed to bring peace to Lebanon. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the ministers wanted a force under U.N. mandate that will have a strong and robust capability to help bring about peace and help humanitarian efforts.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): We are all agreed that we want most urgently to end the violence on a basis that this time will be sustainable, because unfortunately, this is a region that has had too many broken cease fires, to many spasms of violence followed then by other spasms of violence.

MONTAGNE: Condoleezza Rice speaking today in Rome. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is now in its third week, with more than 400 people killed in Lebanon. Nearly 50 people have been killed in Israel. Four U.N. military observers were killed in an Israeli air strike in Lebanon yesterday, and there's been more intense fighting today. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins me now from Rome. And Sylvia, they agreed on the need for an international force, but was there an agreement on a cease-fire?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Well, the statement that was read by the Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema and signed, of course, by all the participants was - insisted on an urgent cease-fire. But, of course, he also added that the situation right now is - the problem is whether it is achievable at this moment simply with an appeal. And, in fact, it was probably - it was certainly what the Europeans and the Arabs representatives present in Rome wanted to be at the top of the agenda. We understand that it did not - it was not the first item discussed. And with the most important parties not present here - Israel and representatives of Hezbollah - it was probably unfeasible and too high an expectation to think that a cease-fire would be agreed to today.

MONTAGNE: But what about the details of this force or this peace force? Does any country step in and actually volunteer troops?

POGGIOLI: Not at all. In fact, the who and the how and the when of how this force will be created are very much up in the air. Already even before the conference started, the U.S. and Britain had declined, saying that they are overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. Germany has said before that it will contribute troops, but it insists that Hezbollah must agree, and that's not very likely. The Israelis wanted a NATO-led force. Now it's going to be under a U.N. mandate, but it's not clear who will take part in it. There may be - there's a possibility of a European Union task force, which - up to now, however - has only been used in kind of humanitarian crises in Pakistan and elsewhere, so it's not exactly trained for this kind of situation. So we will have to see. They said that there will be urgent talks in - Secretary Rice said that there will be talks in the next few days to discuss much more, the details of how this force will be formed. It'll also need, obviously, some kind of U.N. resolution before - it'll take time.

MONTAGNE: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the U.N. base was an accident. Of course, that left four dead. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was at the Rome meeting. What did he have to say about that?

POGGIOLI: Well, he said - first of all, he was asked a rather pointed question and asked if he thought that the statement he had made that Israel was apparently - targeted the U.N. observers was helpful to peace. He insisted that he had said apparently targeted. He seemed to pull back a little bit. He said he had spoken with Olmert, and he said that Israel will open an investigation. And he had suggested a joint investigation. He seemed, a little bit, to pull back from the tone that he had used in his first remark last night.

MONTAGNE: Kofi Annan has also been clear about the need to involve Syria and Iran - neither of whom were invited to Rome - in an attempt to end the fighting. Was there support for that idea among the foreign ministers today?

POGGIOLI: Oh, certainly. Secretary Rice also had said that Syria should be involved, citing precisely that Syria is also one of the signers of these previous agreements that involved the disarming of Hezbollah and urged that all the parties in the region - and she also made a mention of Iran - definitely engage in this process to try to restore some type of stability and create a totally sovereign - and Lebanon, and giving the possibility of the Lebanese government to have total control over all its territory.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, where a one day international conference on fighting in the Middle East was held today.

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