UN ranks begin to swell in Lebanon

Some 880 Italian troops arrived this weekend to enforce the cease-fire. UN forces now total 3,100. The goal is 15,000.

Wearing blue helmets and carrying rifles, the first wave of Italian commandos stepped from the gray helicopter that landed in a cloud of stinging sand, adding to the growing number of international peacekeepers in south Lebanon.

Some 880 Italians arrived over the weekend to join 2,220 soldiers already here to ensure the three-week-old cease-fire between Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas and Israel will hold.

As the Italians brought the number of international troops closer to its intended 15,000-strong force, the sight of blue helmets also lent credibility to the expectation of calm here. "I hope they will bring peace for us all. We have suffered too long from war," says Mahmoud Bazzi, who watched as the helicopters clattered low over the sea, ferrying soldiers from the five ships anchored off the coast.

Although more peacekeepers could arrive here in the coming weeks to re- inforce a UN peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, analysts say that stability in south Lebanon is more dependent on the political will of Hizbullah and Israel than measures undertaken by UNIFIL.

"It doesn't matter how many UNIFIL are on the ground. If there's no political will, it's not going to work and there's not much the force can do about it," says Timur Goksel, university lecturer in Beirut who served with UNIFIL from 1979 to 2003.

UNIFIL deployed in Lebanon in March 1978, in the wake of Israel's first invasion of Lebanon. It has been here ever since, wedged uncomfortably at times between Israeli forces and, initially, Palestinian militants, and later Hizbullah's guerrillas.

General Alain Pellegrini, UNIFIL's French commander, knows all too well the pitfalls of peacekeeping in Lebanon. He served with the French component of the Multinational Force in Beirut in 1983 at the height of Lebanon's civil war. That mission ended after Shiite suicide truck bombers simultaneously blew up the US Marine barracks and the headquarters of the French paratroops, killing more than 300 people.

"Our rules of engagement are being finalized, but this is a very new mission," he says, watching the heavy troop transporter helicopters buzzing over the sea to disgorge yet more Italian commandos.

Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN undersecretary for peacekeeping operations, who also was in Tyre to observe the arrival of the Italian troops, says that the UN has changed in the past 10 years.

"The UN of 2006 is not the UN of 10 years ago. We have drawn lessons from past experience. We have robust rules of engagement so that we can defend ourselves and not be humiliated anymore," he says.

Italy aims to deploy 2,450 soldiers in south Lebanon, making it the largest contingent to the new UNIFIL. France has said that it will send 2,000 soldiers, which, with contributions from Spain and Poland, will provide some 7,000 soldiers and will make up the backbone of the new UNIFIL.

Other countries, such as Qatar, Germany, Indonesia, Turkey, and Malaysia, have expressed interest in contributing. Britain and Sweden have offered to dispatch naval patrol ships to monitor the Lebanese coastline.

Yet questions about the new force remain unanswered. The French contingent, which is due to arrive late next week, reportedly intends to bring 13 Leclerc tanks and heavy 155mm artillery guns. And the role of foreign warships patrolling Lebanese waters is still uncertain.

"It's not normal to have tanks and heavy artillery on a peacekeeping mission, and what is the naval force going to do? Are they going to board Israeli gunboats?" asks Mr. Goksel.

One senior UNIFIL officer admitted that a full contingent of 15,000 peacekeepers is "probably overkill," especially as the Lebanese Army is also deploying 15,000 troops into the border district.

Crucially, Hizbullah appears to have chosen to concentrate on reconstructing south Lebanon and shoring up the support of its Shiite constituents, many of whom lost homes and livelihoods during the war. The deployment of UNIFIL and Lebanese troops in south Lebanon will prevent Hizbullah from reviving the extensive military infrastructure of bunkers, tunnels, observation posts, and rocket stockpiles it developed over the past six years.

UNIFIL was established under the UN's Chapter Six mandate that allows weapons to be used in self-defense only, rather than under the "peace-enforcing" Chapter Seven. Because UNIFIL was invited into Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government, it was obliged to respect Beirut's policies, even if at times they contradicted the spirit of the force's mission.

For example, Hizbullah's campaign of resistance against Israel's occupation of south Lebanon in the 1990s was endorsed by the Lebanese government, and UNIFIL could do little more than count the shells and rockets fired by either side and bring humanitarian relief to the beleaguered civilian population.

Following Israel's withdrawal from its occupation zone in south Lebanon in 2000, UNIFIL was reduced in size from 5,600 soldiers to 2,000. There had been moves in the UN Security Council in recent years to shut down the mission, believing that the Lebanese Army should shoulder the burden of securing the Lebanese side of the border with Israel.

The devastating month-long war between Hizbullah and Israel, however, starkly demonstrated the fragility of the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Peacekeepers in south Lebanon have dubbed the new expanded mission UNIFIL 2, saying that the past force effectively no longer exists. Resolution 1701, which led to the cessation of hostilities on Aug. 14, calls for UNIFIL to be increased to a maximum of 15,000 troops and grants it more robust powers to implement the resolution. However, unease among potential troop-contributing countries over the precise rules of engagement delayed what was supposed to be a swift deployment of additional troops.

Lebanon has a grim reputation as a graveyard for well-intentioned international peacekeeping missions, and there was little appetite among European countries to see their soldiers caught in armed confrontations with Hizbullah fighters and the Israeli military.

Israeli troops remain on Lebanese soil at a few points along the border. Just east of the Christian village of Alma Shaab, a blue and white Israeli flag flutters beside two Merkava tanks, their barrels pointed north.

The Israeli government has said it will withdraw its last soldiers when UNIFIL's numbers reach 5,000.

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