Italy Pursues Peacekeeping Role in Mideast

Italy's foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, travels to Jerusalem on Sunday to help find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Lebanon. So far, calls for restraint have been ignored. Italy has offered to send troops to any multinational peacekeeping force, and Prime Minister Romano Prodi wants Italy to act as a "facilitator" in the Middle East.

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When fighting broke out between Hezbollah and Israel two weeks ago, the government of Italy moved quickly to demonstrate its desire to help broker a ceasefire, and also to send troops to participate in any future international force in southern Lebanon. Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema co-hosted talks in Rome this past week with leaders from Europe and Arab nations, and he travels to Israel today.

Before his departure, D'Alema spoke with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. He told her that the Rome talks laid the groundwork for a joint European, American and moderate Arab front to tackle Middle East crises.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Massimo D'Alema says the biggest challenge of the Rome conference was getting countries with differing opinions to sign on to a joint project.

Foreign Minister MASSIMO D'ALEMA (Italy): (Through Translator) We have to create a large international coalition to prevent increasing danger of a clash between the West and the Islamic world. And this coalition must include the United States and Europe as a whole. Russia's presence is important, as well as that of leading Arab in Islamic countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.

POGGIOLI: A former Communist, D'Alema has been foreign minister for only a few months, since Italy's new Center-Left government took office. As prime minister in 1999, he defied a skeptical public opinion and flanked the U.S. and other NATO countries in the bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia. He fondly remembers his close cooperation with former President Bill Clinton. But he wants to reassure the Bush administration that despite sharp criticism of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, his government wants to be a friend of the United States.

Foreign Minister D'ALEMA: (Through Translator) We want to work together. And if the United States wants a better relationship with Europe and with the Arab world, our government can use its influence in Europe and the Middle East, not as a tool of anti-Americanism but rather to revive and strengthen cooperation with United States.

POGGIOLI: D'Alema believes the current situation in Iraq demonstrates that the war was counter-productive and did not produce the hoped for domino effect of bringing stability and democracy.

Foreign Minister D'ALEMA: (Through Translator) The idea that there's democracy to would take hold in the Arab world, a feeling of sympathy for Israel would also involve what's wrong. Even in a country like Egypt, which has a peace agreement with Israel, the radical Muslim Brotherhood is growing and demanding that Egypt wage war against Israel. In these days, public opinion in that region is rooting for war. So it is the international community that has to chart the path of peace.

POGGIOLI: The foreign minister is convinced the world cannot be governed without the participation of strong international bodies.

Foreign Minister D'ALEMA: (Through Translator) I believe the Bush administration, and particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, understands that international institutions like the United Nations and European Union are crucial instruments, and that simple coalition of the willing are unable to solve problems.

POGGIOLI: Turning to Israel, D'Alema says that while in the Middle East he will seek to reassure Israelis that Europe does care about the future of their country and its security, and it upholds Israel's right to defend itself. But at the same time, he will insist that Israel's security problem cannot be resolved by military means, which can only further enflame the Arab world's hatred of Israel.

Foreign Minister D'ALEMA: (Through Translator) There has to be a negotiated political solution, or else Israel will remain forever the target of a growing Islamic fundamentalism. We must begin a serious and in-depth discussions with Israel on how to guarantee its long-time security.

POGGIOLI: The fighting in Lebanon has revealed that the political map of the Middle East is undergoing sweeping changes, such as the growing regional influence of Syria and Iran, two countries, D'Alema says, that must be engaged.

Foreign Minister D'ALEMA: (Through Translator) I do not believe in a policy for isolating these countries. However, they must be told clearly by the international community that they have to contribute to easing the conflict and disarming the militias, rather than increase tensions.

POGGIOLI: One of the key achievements of the Rome conference was the decision to form an international force for Lebanon. But D'Alema does not believe it can be deployed until after a ceasefire is in place and agreement reached between the belligerents. Its main task, D'Alema says, would be to help the Lebanese government and army regain control and sovereignty over southern Lebanon, as well as guarantee Israeli security.

Foreign Minister D'ALEMA: (Through Translator) It should be a large, robust force, not a group of observers, a real military force. We are talking about 15,000 troops capable of effectively fulfilling their mandate.

POGGIOLI: This week at the U.N. in New York and at the European Union in Brussels, diplomats will begin to draw up blueprints for an international force in southern Lebanon.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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