U.N. Force Trickles into Lebanon

Over the next few days, about 3,500 peacekeepers from France, Italy, and other European nations are expected to begin deploying in southern Lebanon. This falls well short of the numbers the U.N. Security Council approved. There's still concern about the mandate. Israel is refusing to let some countries participate, and others will sign on — but only if they can work from a distance, such as from ships off Lebanon's shore.

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U.N. peacekeeping troops are heading to Lebanon. Today about 150 French army engineers landed in the south of the country and several ships carrying Italy's first contingent of 800 troops are due to land in the port of Tyre on Friday. In all, nearly 7,000 troops have been pledged for the U.N. peacekeeping mission but that is a long way from what the Security Council envisioned.

NPR's Jackie Northam looks at why it's so difficult to get U.N. peacekeepers into southern Lebanon.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

At best, U.N. Resolution 1701 was a compromise deal and diplomats warned that many challenges lay ahead before it was fully implemented. What's come as a surprise, however, is how difficult it's been to mount the peacekeeping force outlined in the resolution. Up to 15,000 U.N. troops were authorized to go into southern Lebanon.

So far, less than half that number have signed up. Spain, Portugal and other European nations are still considering if and how many troops they will send. Same with Turkey. Elizabeth Hurd is a Northwestern University political scientist who studies Middle East relations.

Ms. ELIZABETH HURD (Northwestern University): I think what's really at stake is that countries are afraid to contribute troops to a force that may have to act against Israel, against Hezbollah, against Syria or anyone else.

NORTHAM: Hurd says one overriding concern is that the mandate for the peacekeepers is unclear. For sure the troops can act in self-defense, but there are scenarios where the rules of engagement can become murky. Hurd says, for example.

Ms. HURD: If Israeli soldiers for some reason refused to retreat to the border and instead are insisting upon remaining in Lebanon, do the peacekeepers report this? Or are they required to remove the Israelis themselves, which could involve the use of force? Those kinds of questions need to be clearly established and resolved before an effective peacekeeping mission can be undertaken.

NORTHAM: The U.N. force commander will decide what the peacekeepers can and cannot do on the ground. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, says the U.N. needs to prevent what happened in Rwanda and Bosnia, where peacekeepers stood by helpless as civilians were slaughtered.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): The U.N. force should be allowed to do virtually anything it ever needs to to protect itself or civilians but not exercise the complete extent of that power except where absolutely necessary. So you want the rules to be very permissive but the operational patterns to be relatively constrained.

NORTHAM: O'Hanlon says another concern is if key players lay down conditions. Syria, for example, has objected to the deployment of U.N. troops along its border with Lebanon. Israel is refusing to allow some Muslim countries, such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, to contribute troops to the U.N. force.

Art Hughes, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, says it's important to get Muslim countries on board.

Mr. ART HUGHES (Middle East Institute): I think it helps Lebanon. It's showing that this is not just a Western force. I think also there are possibilities that they can do a little different kind of work on the ground, particularly if it comes down to some occasional situation that could lead to some violence.

NORTHAM: And the potential for violence, the threat of renewed fighting in southern Lebanon, is a constant. Robert Hunter is a senior advisor at Rand Corporation and was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998. Hunter says the fighting in Lebanon is a harbinger of much worse things to come if the U.S. and other major powers don't address a settlement between Israel and its neighbors.

Hunter says many countries that could contribute to the peacekeeping force may just be taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Mr. ROBERT HUNTER (Rand Corporation): They're sitting there watching to see how serious America is on Arab/Israeli peacemaking. If we are, troops will go to Lebanon. If we're not, they won't. Simple as that.

NORTHAM: Hunter says it's unlikely any peacekeeping force will be big or strong enough if neither party to the conflict is really committed to peace.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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