Italy Ready to Lead Lebanon Cease-Fire Force

European officials meet in Brussels for talks on the composition of a peacekeeping mission to support a U.N.-negotiated cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Italy says it's ready to lead the 15,000-strong international force.

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It's been 10 days since the UN Security Council authorized an expanded, robust international force to act as peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. Politicians and diplomats from many countries say the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah is fragile, and getting international troops in soon is crucial. But it's been slow-going, getting commitments to participate. European troops are supposed to make up a significant chunk of the 15,000-strong force, and European officials are meeting in Brussels today to discuss any progress.

NPR's Emily Harris is there and joins us now. And Emily, where do European contributions stand now?

EMILY HARRIS: Well, the biggest and most significant commitment at this point is Italy. Italy says it's ready to lead this force and send as many as 3,000 troops. This allowed the effort to recover, basically, from a bit of a limbo it was thrown into when France - which had been expected to send a couple thousand troops and take charge of the force - but decided to only send about 200 combat engineers. That raised a lot of questions about whether - what kind of European force and who would lead it would be put together at all.

Italian officials are seeming to be taking this quite seriously. They're due in Lebanon today to look over the situation and are expected to talk with Israeli officials tomorrow. But there are some caveats. Italy's foreign minister says, for example, he's concerned that Israeli forces will continue to shoot and he wants guarantees from Israel before committing troops. And here in Brussels today, Italy is hoping to basically shake the trees - get other European countries committed to putting troops on the ground for this force.

MONTAGNE: You know, given the big show of this being a great solution, in a sense, to what was going on in Lebanon, why has it been so slow going?

HARRIS: Well, there are a couple of practical reasons, like procedural things; parliamentary approval is needed in some cases and parliament's are on summer breaks. But really, this is basically just a very, very difficult political sell. The international force is seen to be crucial because the cease-fire is very fragile and the troops are seen as giving a way for Israel to be comfortable pulling back. But it's exactly because the cease-fire is so fragile that governments are hesitant to send troops into what could be a, potentially, a military and political mess.

So some diplomats are talking about the reason for the delay as being the question of exactly what is the mission. That gets at the heart of how to avoid a mess. The French foreign minister said, over the weekend, that France needs much clearer information about rules of engagement and chains of command. This is a bit contentious because the UN says that those details are very clear and that France was actually heavily involved in writing them. And draft rules of engagement were given last Friday to all the countries that might consider sending troops. They've not been made public but I'm told they do allow use of deadly force in a variety of defensive situations.

But the question is, exactly, how the international force would be supposed to deal with Hezbollah? The Security Council resolution that authorizes the force says it would be supposed to help the government of Lebanon disarm Hezbollah and stop the flows of arms across Lebanese borders. But that resolution doesn't spell out exactly how much the force would help the Lebanese government; what exactly they would do.

MONTAGNE: And why is it being seen as so important that Europe participates?

HARRIS: Well, there is a limited pool of troops that can go. Americans can't - they're not seen as being impartial here. Israel has concerns about several countries who've said they're willing to contribute troops, but they don't recognize Israel and that makes Israel uncomfortable. And as many politicians and diplomats have stressed, that since this is such a fragile cease-fire, you really need people, bodies on the ground. Some European countries have offered naval boats, for example - which is, you know, the help, but not exactly what they really need.

MONTAGNE: And any chance that this problem of committing troops will be resolved at that meeting there today?

HARRIS: Today is a fairly - it's a high-level meeting, but not as high as it goes. They're going to be trying to hammer out where they can go on Friday when foreign ministers will be here in Brussels with Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations. And at that point they hope to be able to make some announcements. The work here today will lay the groundwork for Friday's meeting.

MONTAGNE: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Emily Harris speaking from Brussels.

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