In Lebanon, the UN and Hizbullah make unlikely bedfellows

Faced with a new threat from Sunni militants, UN peacekeepers turn to Hizbullah for protection.

MCpl. Fabio Carlone says his small, lightly armored, Puma vehicle is just the right size for patrolling the narrow, potholed lanes of southern Lebanon.

The flaw, however, is that the vehicle provides little protection against the kind of car bomb that killed six of his United Nations colleagues last month. And Master Corporal Carlone says that weighs on his mind every time he and his Italian comrades go out on patrol along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was increased from 2,000 to 13,300 peacekeepers after the month-long war last summer between Israel and Hizbullah. The UN peacekeepers are led by elite European troops and are charged with helping the Lebanese Army ensure that the tense border remained calm.

But a year on, UNIFIL still finds itself under threat, not from the Shiite Hizbullah, but from suspected radical Sunni militants possibly inspired by Al Qaeda. And in a bizarre twist, some UNIFIL contingents are now seeking the cooperation of the powerful Hizbullah, which also views militant Sunnis as a threat, to help provide tacit security for the peacekeepers, Hizbullah and UNIFIL sources say.

Last month, six Spanish and Colombian soldiers serving with UNIFIL's Spanish battalion were killed when a car bomb exploded beside their armored vehicle, the deadliest attack in UNIFIL's 29-year history.

Last week, a UNIFIL jeep was damaged when a small bomb exploded nearby, confirming fears that last month's bombing was not a random act. In both attacks, radical Sunnis are the prime suspects.

"We are facing threats, but not threats about our ability to carry out our mission," says Maj. Gen. Claudio Graziano, UNIFIL's commander, at his headquarters in the southern coastal village of Naqoura. "We are cautious, we are soldiers. We know the risk can be minimized but not completely eradicated."

As Lebanon's political crisis intensified in the wake of the war last summer, UNIFIL began receiving increased intelligence warnings of potential attacks by Al Qaeda-inspired militants. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's deputy leader, twice referred to UNIFIL in video-taped messages, describing the peacekeepers as "international crusader forces."

The growing threat of attack by Sunni radicals apparently spurred the leading European troop-contributing states to seek the Shiite Hizbullah's cooperation. According to UNIFIL sources, intelligence agents from Italy, France, and Spain met with Hizbullah representatives in the southern city of Sidon in April. As a result, some Spanish peacekeepers subsequently were "escorted" on some of their patrols by Hizbullah members in civilian vehicles, the UNIFIL sources say.

A day after the six peacekeepers were killed last month, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos spoke with Manucher Mottaki, the foreign minister of Iran, Hizbullah's main patron. According to a Hizbullah official in south Lebanon, there has been at least one meeting between the Shiite party and Spanish UNIFIL officers since the bombing.

UNIFIL has long had quiet channels of communication with Hizbullah stretching back to the late 1980s, a recognition of the Shiite group's clout in the south. But UNIFIL commander General Graziano says that although troop-contributing governments may talk to Hizbullah, the peacekeeping battalions are only authorized to liaise with the Lebanese Army. Contacts with Hizbullah or any other Lebanese political party is not permitted, he says.

"I highly forbid any relation that is not authorized by this headquarters for any contingent that is dressed in the blue beret to have contact with any party without my authorization," he says.

Although there was no claim of responsibility for last month's attack on the Spanish battalion, Al Qaeda's Mr. Zawahiri, in a taped message released three weeks ago, praised what he called the "blessed operation" and criticized Hizbullah for cooperating with UNIFIL, heightening speculation that the bombing was the work of militant Sunnis.

That devastating bomb attack has led UNIFIL to tighten its security, which has meant fewer stops for coffee with local Lebanese while on patrol. The growing inability to mix with southern Lebanese – one of the force's most important tactics – could become the most significant effect of the bombings, analysts say.

"It risks becoming a force where force protection becomes supreme, keeping troops safe and driving around as little as possible and behind armor," says Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based conflict resolution expert who served in UNIFIL from 1979 to 2003. "I know [UNIFIL command] is aware of this problem, but what can they do?"

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