UN force in south Lebanon -- often a helpless bystander -- faces uncertain future

For seven years, the United Nations force in Lebanon has often been a helpless bystander in the fighting that periodically engulfs southern Lebanon. The peacekeeping force can probably expect its situation to worsen as Israel completes a unilateral troop withdrawal from the south, UN sources say.

However, UN diplomats insist that the 5,800 soldiers of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) continue to serve as the only stabilizing influence in an increasingly chaotic area. (UNIFIL troops are volunteered by 10 countries, and they patrol about 410 square miles in Lebanon, stretching south from the Litani River to about one mile from the Israel-Lebanon border.)

For this reason, UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar is expected to recommend to the UN Security Council by Friday that it leave the force in position for another six months after its mandate expires April 18.

That doesn't mean, one UN source says, ``that if all hell breaks lose after the Israelis go, contributing nations will not be able to pack up their troops and pull out if they want to.''

UNIFIL's job in the south never has been trouble free. Its troops have been shot at and pushed around by Israeli soldiers. They have been ridiculed and sneered at by Israeli politicians. They have also found it virtually impossible to stop the flow of arms and explosives into the south, where, as one UN source put it ``we are the least armed group.''

For months, UNIFIL soldiers have found themselves trapped between a radicalized Shiite population that expects protection and an Israeli Army that insists they not get in the way of ``security operations.''

Israel has said it will not oppose the renewal of UNIFIL's mandate, although some Israeli leaders have made it clear they would rather see the force disbanded.

The recommendation to maintain UNIFIL's status quo represents a compromise between Israel's view of the force's role and that envisioned by the Lebanese backed by the Syrians.

UN Undersecretary General Brian Urquhart, who finished touring the region Tuesday, was told in Damascus and Beirut that UNIFIL should be deployed all the way to the international border between Israel and Lebanon. The Syrians and Lebanese argue that the force's original mandate calls for such a deployment.

But Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin flatly rejects this idea.

Rabin told Mr. Urquhart that Israel is determined to complete its unilateral withdrawal -- perhaps as early as the end of May -- leaving behind it a security zone that will be patrolled by Israeli-backed Lebanese militia.

The Israelis, one UN force noted, ``are determined to maintain their access to the south.'' Mr. Rabin has said Israel will pursue a ``scorched earth'' policy in the south should Shiite or other guerrilla attacks continue once Israel has withdrawn to the border. UNIFIL, Israel has said, would only get in the way.

In recent months, there have been several clashes between Israeli and UNIFIL troops in the south when UNIFIL troops attempted to intervene during Israeli raids of Shiite villages. Israel has said it cannot trust UNIFIL to prevent guerrilla movements through its territory.

Mr. Urquhart said Tuesday he feels Israel's plan to maintain a security zone is a recipe for disaster, because it will provide the Shiite population with another target for attacks after the Israeli withdrawal.

He advocated, during meetings with officials here and in Damascus and Beirut, that talks should be resumed between Israel and Lebanon to reach security arrangements on the border.

The UN managed to bring military officiers from the two nations to a negotiating table last year at Naqurah. But the talks broke down in January after the Syrians, the chief power brokers in Lebanon, torpedoed any political arrangement with the Israelis. After the talks collapsed, Israel decided to withdraw unilaterally.

The Syrians and Lebanese view the Israeli withdrawal as a political victory for Syria, and a military victory for the Lebanese, who credit the fierce Shiite guerrilla operations with driving the Israelis back to the border.

There is little incentive, diplomats in the region agree, for Syria to sanction any agreement that would guarantee Israel's security once the withdrawal is completed.

``Syria, as much as it wants to have its say over Beirut's policies, is not happy at the prospect of a constantly bubbling Shiite problem in Lebanon,'' says a UN official. At the same time, the Syrians would not be willing to appear to make any concessions to Israel.

UN sources said that Mr. Urquhart had urged the Israelis to reconsider allowing UNIFIL's deployment along the border.

``It's the only option the Israelis haven't tried,'' said one observer. ``Everything else has failed them, so why not try this?''

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