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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After two weeks, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah continues with no sign of a letup. An Israeli general said today that the Israeli offensive will go on for several more weeks. Emergency talks on the crisis ended earlier today in Rome with no agreement on the timing or conditions of a ceasefire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected appeals from European diplomats and from Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora for an immediate end to the fighting. She said any truce between Israel and Hezbollah must be sustainable and not a return to the status quo.

The leaders did find common ground on two key points: humanitarian aid to the Lebanese and the formation of an international force for southern Lebanon. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain proposed that idea more than a week ago. Since then, however, there have been more questions than answers, and today's talks in Rome did little to offer solutions.

Who would make up this force? Who would lead it? What does a robust mandate mean? While Israel has signed on to the idea - at least in theory - has anybody asked Hezbollah or Syria? And what about UNIFIL, the U.N. observer force based in southern Lebanon since 1978? Yesterday, four of its soldiers died in an Israeli air strike.

Our main focus this hour is the pros and cons of an international force for Lebanon. Later, our regular Political Junkie segment with special guest junkie Fred Grandy. If you have questions about the politics of the visit to Washington of Iraq's prime minister, Bill Clinton's embrace of embattled Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, the interstate abortion bill, the secret identity of the Republican senatorial candidate who described his party affiliation as the Scarlet Letter, you can send us e-mail now. The address is talk@npr.org.

But first, an international force for Lebanon. If you have questions about how it might work, what it would do, and the prospects for success, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

We begin in Rome with NPR senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli, who covered today's meeting.

Sylvia, nice to talk to you.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Nice to see you - nice to talk to you Neal, too.

CONAN: And it seems like most leaders have left Rome empty-handed.

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, I think expectations maybe were a little bit too high for a conference that was, you know, had a huge cast of characters. It was announced only five days ago, and it lasted only half a day. And, of course, you know, it was not a peace conference, since the two main belligerence were not here - nor were the two key behind the scenes players, Syria and Iran.

The final statement said that one of the prime issues on the agenda was the humanitarian aid. And the conference participants, you know, welcomed Israel's announcement yesterday that humanitarian corridors to Lebanon would be opened for the rapid delivery of relief aid, and that is likely to start immediately.

Italian officials were very satisfied with the meeting, which they said was the first concrete step to help end the conflict in Lebanon, and stressed the importance of a joint U.S., European, and Arab effort, after so much acrimony between all these parties over the war in Iraq.

CONAN: And at the White House today, secretary - the spokesman for the president, Tony Snow, put a positive spin on it as well. He said everybody -all parties were knitted up, as he put it, on a plan to halt the fighting. And the Bush administration said - insistence that a ceasefire not be merely show. He said everybody seemed to agree on that as well.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. In fact, even after the meeting, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, who had - was one of the co-hosts with the United States - he said it was perhaps unrealistic that a ceasefire could be achieved through a simple appeal.

CONAN: And in terms of the international force, though, there was some progress, an agreement that it would need a United Nations mandate. And presumably, that's a referral to the Security Council, whereas such mandates are worked out. And also, Prime Minister Prodi announced that Italy would commit troops if there was a U.N. mandate.

POGGIOLI: Yes, he did. That was, just a little bit - a little while ago, this evening. But the rest is totally up in the air. Britain and the U.S., even before the conference, had said that they were overstretched and they declined participation. Germany has said it would contribute troops, but it insists that Hezbollah agree to that, and that's not very likely. The Israelis had suggested a NATO-led force, but many Europeans feel that NATO is too closely associated with the United States to be considered neutral in the region.

They're a lot of questions of whether the deployment of this force would be before or after a ceasefire is in place, and whether it would have - the force would have the mandate to disarm Hezbollah. So there're going to have to be a lot more talks in the next few days before we have any idea exactly what this force will be.

CONAN: So if there is - amid all the calls for a ceasefire, there seems to be a - well, diplomacy may take several weeks, and that may be putting it mildly.

POGGIOLI: That's true. But, you know, I think what the novelty here is something else. Even Prime Minister Prodi acknowledge that there were differences of opinions, but there were no confrontations. He said there's a new diplomatic dialogue with the United States has begun. And, I think, you know, the thing here that's changed is that the Europeans now are really as concerned as the United States are about Syria's support for Hezbollah, the growing clout of Iran in the Middle East - as well as the possibility of it becoming a nuclear power. This fear is also present in many Arab countries.

Nobody wants another clash like the one that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And so the real novelty is that there is a new strategic convergence among the participants who are here in Rome on the Middle East, and that's what they hope to start working on.

CONAN: As you mentioned, the - several of the people involved, as countries involved Israel - in terms of Syria and Iran were not there. Several moderate Arab countries were represented. What did they come away saying?

POGGIOLI: Well, they did not speak. There was no really - the only participants - the only participant from the Middle East who spoke at the final press conference was the Lebanese Prime Minister al-Fouad Siniora. And he made a really impassioned plea for his country. He could - he, frankly, could not hide his disappointment that a ceasefire had not been achieved. But he did say it was discussed very amply, and he admitted some progress had been made.

CONAN: And amongst those progress - steps of progress, I'm sure he feels there's going to be a donor conference for Lebanon set up shortly.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. And today, even the European Union announced another big relief package to the Middle East.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

POGGIOLI: Some 10 million Euro after a similar decision - a similar sum that was agreed to a week ago.

CONAN: Sylvia, we'll let you get the phone.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, our senior European correspondent, joining us from NPR's bureau in Rome.

The first peacekeeping mission established by the United Nations was set up in the Middle East in 1948, to monitor the Arab-Israeli ceasefire. Since then, the U.N. has authorized more than 60 peacekeeping missions around the world.

To tell us more about peacekeeping and international forces, we're joined by Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Lebanon as the operations officer of the U.N. Observer Group from 1986 to 1987. He also served as a peacekeeper in Somalia.

Colonel Anderson, nice to have you back in Studio Three A.

Colonel GARY ANDERSON (Marine Corps, Retired; Former Operations Officer, U.N. Observer Group, Lebanon): Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Diplomats in Rome today did call for the formation of an international force and a U.N. mandate for it. But they did not decide on specifics, and the devil in this case seems to be in the details. Who would lead it? Who would make up such a force? What would it do?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, I'd say it's a $64,000 question, and this is a really tough nut. It really depends on the mandate that's given to the force and what they're authorized to do or not to do, as it's extremely difficult for me to see how any multi-national force could disarm Hezbollah forcibly - they are an extremely well-organized, very tough organization. They fought the Israelis for 18 years starting in 1982, and as I was there, I saw them get better and better and was almost a decade after I left that fighting - that the Israelis finally left. This is going to be a devilishly hard thing to do.

CONAN: What countries - the composition of such a force would be thought problematical in and of itself, would it not?

Col. ANDERSON: If this is a combat mission. If this is a chapter seven, forcible disarmament of Hezbollah - which very, very difficult - really, the only forces in the world that are capable of doing that kind of combat - and then Hezbollah's very good at night - very good night fighters and so forth. And you're going to need a combined armed force that's capable of air support and things like that. That's really NATO. That's really European countries that have the capability and the capacity to do that, and here you have essentially crusader Christian nations and (unintelligible) out of the region who, you know, once again, intervening in a country that's had a lot of European interventions. This appears to me to be very, very problematical.

CONAN: In 1982 and '83 when U.S. forces were in Lebanon - along with French forces as well - on a peacekeeping mission they came to be seen as taking sides and they saw the terrible explosions at the marine barracks. And the French also suffered grievous losses as well. Then, obviously, the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon for many years, they of course were seen as occupiers as well. Is there any force you could imagine that would not be perceived as occupiers?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, here's the problem. You can make up a force of other Arab nations who are wiling to do it, which would be probably more culturally acceptable in the region, but the problem is, quite frankly, most of those forces do not have the combat capacity to stand up to Hezbollah. So, the only force in NATO that might me reasonably acceptable might be the Turks, but they have some cultural baggage in that area as well.

So, it's going to be a very, very difficult mission if, in fact, there is no Syrian/Hezbollah involvement and some kind of agreement to pull back.

CONAN: So, in a sense, this breathing space that seems to have been provided - the idea that after this meeting today in Rome, this is going to have to be referred to the United Nations Security Counsel to work out the mandate. All of this is going to take considerable time. This is all going to be needed for diplomacy to establish - to work the ground to establish, prepare, or welcome if such troops - if a welcome can be arranged.

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah, I think that what probably the best outcome you might be able to get would be Lebanese/Israeli talks. I think that would have to be three-way because the Syrians might get involved and might want to play a role in this. But since Israel and Hezbollah don't speak, if they have some kind of an agreement where eventually the Lebanese army will do what they're supposed to do - which is go down and take over that territory with some kind of Hezbollah agreement that they're going to do that - that would be the best possible outcome.

CONAN: We're going to talk more about the role of an international force and what role it might play in Lebanon after the break, and we'll take your calls. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A multi-national conference in Rome today called for an international military force to be deployed in southern Lebanon after a U.N. mandate is agreed upon. It called for the implementation of U.N. resolutions providing for the deployment of Lebanon's armed forces throughout the country and for the disarming of militias, which means Hezbollah. You can read more about it and the disagreement over calls for a cease-fire at our Web site, npr.org.

Our guest is Gary Anderson, retired Marine Corps colonel, former U.N. peacekeeper in Lebanon and Somalia. I

If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's begin with Greg, Greg calling us from Long Island in New York.

GREG (Caller): Yes. Well, my question was - and you kind of addressed it a little bit while I was on hold, I think - but my question was what exactly would a U.N. peacekeeping force be able to do? I mean, would it have more jurisdiction than say, the peacekeeping force in situations such as Rwanda, where history kind of shows that there isn't that much for such a force to do?

CONAN: Gary?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, that is really a difficult question, because if the force - the mandate of the force is to forcibly disarm Hezbollah, it's going to be a combat force. There's no two ways about this. Hezbollah will fight them, and it's going to have to be a very, very capable force. It would have to look like a, at least a number of combat brigades with artillery and air support and…

CONAN: You're talking a number of brigades, so what? Fifteen, 20,000 people?

Col. ANDERSON: I would say that would be a minimum to, you know, to try to look for all the rockets and so forth that are probably stored in that area. And again, this is under combat conditions. You have to remember we've been trying to chase down ordinance in Iraq under - at least a little bit more benign conditions for the last couple of years. We haven't come anywhere near stripping that country of its arms.

CONAN: Let me just follow up on Greg's question, though. If you have a force of, say, 20,000 in southern Lebanon, that requires a considerable logistical tail. Somebody's got to be providing it with beans and bullets and all of those other things it's going to need. Where would that be?

Col. ANDERSON: That's another problem. Hezbollah, as a guerilla force, is very able and capable of doing - of interdicting supply lines. It was actually Hezbollah that came up with a concept of the radio-detonated - what we now call improvised explosive device. And I watched them really give the Israelis and the south Lebanese army a hard time with those. They darn near killed me one day with one just by mistake, I think, more than anything else. But, this is a really, really tough nut.

CONAN: Greg, thanks for the call.

GREG: Actually, at this time I kind of have two brief other questions. Is that possible?

CONAN: Well, why don't you try one at a time? We'll see where it goes.

GREG: All right. It seems to me like the whole area is such a powder keg, that by sending other forces in there - like you said, Italy and Germany, who - I mean, first of all, that's interesting because, I mean, they both have histories of anti-Semitism or whatever, but the other issue that if we start like, sending troops over and if Syria decides to side with Lebanon, or whatever you were saying before…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

GREG: Doesn't it seem to put us into, like, much, like, war situation than it is now, and almost like a World War III scenario kind of thing where everybody's taking sides, or…

CONAN: Um, let's hold off on World War III for just a moment, but Gary - such a force. One of the things that had been called upon us is you have got to keep reinforcements and re-supply of weapons from reaching Hezbollah so that this such a force would have to guard the crossings along the Syrian border, among other things.

GREG: Okay.

Col. ANDERSON: Your only real lines of communications and supply would - right now, everything that UNIFIL gets comes through Israel, through the crossings on a Israeli border. Other than establishing some kind of an amphibious (unintelligible) in Koura or Tyre or one of the other cities there. I think it would be very, very difficult - coming down from Beirut, it would be a real hard slide, logistically.

CONAN: Okay, Greg, we're going to give somebody else a chance, okay?

GREG: All right. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

Let's turn to Chase, Chase calling us from St. Louis.

CHASE (Caller): Hello, this is Chase.

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CHASE: My question is more or less it seems - and I've heard some talk about this - that a lot of countries such as the United States, aside from being stretched thin or saying that because they're stretched to thin are hesitant to offer troops. But it seems like this situation's going to be very sensitive to who the occupying force is as far as how they're going to be taken in by the Lebanese.

You know, obviously, what we've seen in Iraq and elsewhere is that many of these forces have kind of come to be viewed as occupying forces, regardless of what the reasoning is for them being there. And then it kind of starts to fuel the - say the Hezbollah or, you know, any other factions that are going to be opposed or that we're actually trying to get rid of. How can we compose a force like that? Or if a force is to be composed and it has to be composed of countries that will be taken in by the Lebanese, can we still trust that group to keep the other weapons that are from Hezbollah from rearming?

CONAN: That's another question, Gary. Yeah.

Col. ANDERSON: You know, I really, as I say, I'm just not sanguine that they're going to be able to put together a force that's going to have the A, the combat power, and B, the combat capability to take the Hezbollah on. Now if there is some sort of an agreed on peace agreement that Hezbollah signs on to - at least tacitly - then the possibility of bringing in some, you know, some Arab contingents that might not necessarily be able to take them aboard militarily, but there are more of an observer role. That would probably be a better solution.

CONAN: Another factor would be that these forces would have to be committed for some considerable amount of time. This would not be a matter of weeks or months, but more likely years.

Col. ANDERSON: I would say a year would probably be a minimum to A, sanitize the area of all these heavy weapons and so forth. They've been apparently stocking them up for the last six years. So, I don't - I would say it would have to be a long time. And again, it's really problematical if you don't have some kind of an agreement of some kind before they go in there.

CONAN: And speaking of that, would there have to be some sort of a cease-fire in place before they entered, or would they have to fight their way in?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, again, this comes down to mandate. What the U.N. is going to look for if they've got to fight their way in - the Israelis are really having a tough time just in Bent Jbeil, which is just across the border. And I was - there was some question in my mind this time last week whether the Hezbollah would, you know, let them come in and then kind of go after the supply lines or they would contest towns like Bent Jbeil, Tabdin(ph), Khiam, and so forth. And it looks like they're going to contest them.

CONAN: Hmm. Chase, thanks very much for the call.

CHASE: Thank you. Could I have one more question please?

CONAN: Well, we've got another guest on the line so I'm afraid we have to…

CHASE: Thank you.

CONAN: But thank you. We appreciate it. With little sign of an end in sight, Europeans are saying that a U.N. peacekeeping move is the best hope for peace. For more on this perspective, we're joined by Robert Lowe, the manager of the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, better known as Chatham House in London. And he joins us on the phone from his office there. And good of you to join us.

Mr. ROBERT LOWE (Manager, Middle East Program, Chatham House): Hi. You're very welcome.

CONAN: Prime Minister Blair said several times, I think, that in response to questions about some of the criticisms that we've been airing here, he says, if you got a better idea, I'd like to hear it. Is this the least bad idea?

Mr. LOWE: Yes, I think it is at the moment, if only because there is no other alternative currently on the table which looks like it could lead to anything other than the continuation or hostilities. The International Peacekeeping Force is by no means perfect, and as we've just heard very eloquently explained, it's full of difficulties and will be very awkward to get going. But that said, no one has yet come up with a more promising alternative solution.

CONAN: Yet as you look at the extreme difficulties of this, how is such a force not going to be perceived by the Lebanese - especially the Shias of southern Lebanon very much in support of Hezbollah at this point - as occupiers?

Mr. LOWE: Well, Hezbollah have said that an international peacekeeping force is a possibility. They've not ruled it out completely. The problem is it would have to be on their terms, and this is where the sticking point would be because their terms and Israel's terms are, of course, a long way apart.

Hezbollah would only be able to accept any kind of international presence if, in effect, it did not interfere with their business. So, similar to the UNIFIL force, which is currently inside Lebanon, Hezbollah was able to go about its affairs as it wished to do so. A major stumbling block would be whether the international force had to disarm Hezbollah or not. Of course, Hezbollah would not accept those terms. And another point of contention would be whether the force would also be present on the border between Lebanon and Syria to stop the supply of weapons to Hezbollah inside Lebanon.

CONAN: There would also presumably have to be naval forces - or at least a naval presence as well - to block that entry point, too.

Mr. LOWE: Yes, I imagine so. I've not had a great deal of discussion about that. I think the main line, the main supply line into Hezbollah is certainly overland from Syria - originally from Iran, then passing through Syria through the west and across into the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

CONAN: In terms of the mandate - at least at this meeting in Rome today - the discussion was along the lines of UN Resolution 1559, which as you know, calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed and the Lebanese army to take control of the entire country. If a UN mandate is based on that, it's not going to be acceptable to Hezbollah, is it?

Mr. LOWE: No. Hezbollah has for some years now been in an argument with the Lebanese government - with the Lebanese body central - about its right to carry arms. And all armed parties in Lebanon were supposed to disarm at the end of the civil war. Hezbollah have maintained their militia throughout and have argued that they must retain arms, because if Israel were to attack, then Lebanese army is not capable of protecting the country.

And furthermore, Lebanon's international friends will not protect the country. Now according to Hezbollah's arguments, the events of the last fortnight have very much proven this case. Lebanon has been very badly attacked and not being able to defend itself. So the Hezbollah believe that they therefore must maintain their right to be an armed force in Lebanon.

And the Lebanese government simply does not have the power to disarm them, much as they would like to.

CONAN: And just let me ask you, though, is even talking about this idea - diplomats getting together trying to address the problem - is that a positive step?

Mr. LOWE: Yes it is a positive step. There's been a conspicuous absence in the last two weeks of the fighting of any major diplomatic breakthroughs. The United States in particular is being criticized in Europe for its lack of engagement with the problem, sitting back and letting the war continue and the deaths mount.

So if nothing else, at least they finally got together around the table in Rome and started discussing these issues. It does not appear they got terribly far today, but at least it's a start. And we should hope that from this further developments, more positive developments might emerge soon.

CONAN: We're talking about the idea of an international military force for Lebanon with Robert Lowe, the manager of the Middle East program at Chatham House in London, and with Gary Anderson, a retired colonel of Marines and former advisor to the defense department on Iraqi security who served in Lebanon and Somalia as a UN peacekeeper.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's a question we have from e-mail. This from Dave in East Lansing, Michigan.

As I understand it, the president could send the United States Marines anywhere in the world on a fast action for 90 days without Congressional approval. Could the colonel see ever developing a specific peacekeeping force to address situations just like this in Israel and Lebanon to provide a 90-day window for the UN to get rolling and enable a cooling-off period?

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah. Generally, in a fast moving mission - because the UN takes a little bit of time to put together a headquarters of its own and so forth - generally, you see a leader nation in a UN-mandated operation. Desert Storm is a good example. The United States became the lead nation under a UN mandate. And the same thing happened in Somalia when they first went in and then they were later replaced by UN headquarters.

So the question is who's going to bell the cat(ph)? You know, what country is going to be an acceptable leader and that sort of thing. The United States is capable, as it did in East Timor, of certainly providing logistic support and command and control.

But we're not seen as a - we are not seen as a neutral party in this thing and I can't imagine a U.S. presence on the ground that wouldn't exacerbate the problem rather than help solve it.

CONAN: Let's get a question in from Kyle. Kyle's calling us from West Palm Beach in Florida.

KYLE (Caller): Uh-huh?

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air, Kyle.

KYLE: Oh, has anyone talked about building up the Lebanese army with - not to sound like Vietnam - you know, outside observers and army trainers or anything like that?

CONAN: Robert Lowe, has that been discussed? And we should point out the Lebanese army - we were discussing about this earlier in the week - that's probably the plurality in the Lebanese army are Shias and they have relatives in Hezbollah. But go ahead.

Mr. LOWE: Yes, Kyle, that's a major problem with the Lebanese army and exerting any kind of control over Hezbollah that their fellow confessional Shias are in both forces. And the Lebanese army is a very difficult instrument. And because of Lebanon's very bloody civil war, the difficulties coming out of that war were how to construct a force within Lebanon, which could fairly represent each of the many parties within the state.

Now partly because of that, the Lebanese army is deliberately kept fairly weak, because one of the fears was that if the army became too strong, one particular force or faction may take over the armed forces and use it for their own means. So they have to be very careful about to what strength the Lebanese army can be built to.

The other main problem has been simply a lack of funds in Lebanon to build up its own army. Although the caller may have an interesting point, that international support to bolster the Lebanese army may prove useful.

CONAN: Gary, you've had some experience with the Lebanese army. What do you think?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, yeah, I think the problem, mistake we made when we tried to rebuild the Lebanese army back in the early ‘80s was that we - for reasons that were just mentioned - what we did we ended up forming brigades made up of confessional factions. And that might have been a good idea if everybody had decided not to agree - or decided to agree, I should say. But, essentially, what we did was when things fell apart we just created two better armed forces in a civil war.

So, yeah, I think, you know, it's the responsibility of a sovereign state to be able to police its own borders. And right now, that is the problem. The fact that the Lebanese army has remained a weak force and not able to take Hezbollah aboard has been the real sticking point.

Now that's a long-term solution, but unfortunately, building up the Lebanese army is - look at how long it's taken us in Iraq to get even where we are today - debatable whether or not where we are. But it's going to be very difficult.

CONAN: All right. Our subject to which we'll return as this moves on to the UN and discussion of a mandate. Kyle, thanks very much for the call. Robert Lowe, thank you for your time today.

Mr. LOWE: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East program at Chatham House in London. Gary Anderson, good to speak with you again, too.

Col. ANDERSON: (unintelligible)

CONAN: Gary Anderson was with us here in Studio Three A. When we come back from a short break, a Political Junkie segment with a Political Junkie guest host.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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