Israel seeks troops from Muslim nations - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Israel seeks troops from Muslim nations

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Posted: Saturday, August 26, 2006 8:14 am | Updated: 3:50 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

JERUSALEM - Israel said Saturday it was encouraging some Muslim countries to send peacekeepers to southern Lebanon, a contribution that would lend credibility to the heavily European force

EU nations pledged 6,900 troops Friday, dispelling concerns that the peacekeeping force might not materialize because of reluctance to send troops without clear instructions or authorization to use their weapons.

But the force was still far short of the 15,000 troops envisioned under a resolution that stopped a month of fighting between Israel and the Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas.

The EU and U.N. agree the peacekeeping mission must have a strong Muslim component to give it credibility. Israel, however, objects to nations that do not recognize the Jewish state, saying such troops would make it impossible for Jerusalem to share intelligence with the U.N. force. That would exclude Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia, which have offered troops.

But Israel said it has been in touch with other Muslim countries to encourage them to participate, particularly Turkey, which has diplomatic relations with Israel.

"If Turkey decides to send a contingent, we would welcome that," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Jordan and Egypt also are among Muslim countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The international force is to reinforce the Lebanese army, which is moving 15,000 soldiers of its own into the south. They are the first assertion of central authority in the region along the Israeli border in decades.

But 13 days after Israel and Hezbollah agreed to a ceasefire, questions remained about how to enforce the vague truce and prevent the area from exploding again. It was unclear how the United Nations would meet Israel's demand to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed Friday it was not the peacekeepers' task to strip the guerrillas of their weapons, saying that was an issue for Lebanon's government and "cannot be done by force."

"The troops are not going there to disarm Hezbollah. Let's be clear about that," he said.

Regev reiterated Israel would not lift its air and sea embargo of Lebanon until peacekeepers take positions along the Syrian border to block arms shipments to Hezbollah from its two main supporters, Iran and Syria.

But Annan said peacekeepers would deploy on the Syrian border only at Lebanon's request, which Beirut has yet to make. Such a move would aggravate tensions with Syria, which views the deployment of international troops along the border as a hostile act.

"The resolution does not require the deployment of U.N. troops to the border," Annan said at a news conference after a three-hour meeting with the 25 EU ministers Friday.

Regev, however, argued that sending troops to Syrian border is key to enforcing an international arms embargo against Hezbollah imposed under the cease-fire resolution.

"The cease-fire calls for an international arms embargo against Hezbollah," Regev said. "So Israel will be willing to allow for unfettered access in and out of Lebanon the minute those international and Lebanese forces are enforcing the arms embargo."

The issue is unlikely to prevent the Israeli government, which is under domestic pressure to pull out of Lebanon quickly, from withdrawing its soldiers. However, Israel could use airstrikes on border crossings, roads and bridges to prevent arms smuggling if Lebanese troops and the U.N. force did not stop shipments themselves.

The bulk of the new troops came from Italy and France. Other countries committed smaller units. Belgium volunteered 400 soldiers, including critical land-mine removal units. Germany and Denmark offered naval forces, and the Finnish foreign minister spoke of sending 250 soldiers, if his parliament approved.

About 150 French army engineers landed Friday at Naqoura in southern Lebanon, joining 250 of their countrymen already among 2,200 peacekeepers in the country, and Italy's leader reportedly said late Friday that his nation's troops could leave for Lebanon as early as Tuesday.

The promised 6,900 European soldiers did not include naval units, air support or peacekeepers already on the ground.

Annan said the cease-fire was holding with few infractions but urged the EU to move swiftly to get its soldiers to region. He said he hoped the expanded force could start deploying in "days, not weeks." He had earlier set a target date of Sept. 2.

"Europe is providing the backbone of the force," Annan said. "We can now begin to put together a credible force."

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the entire U.N. force should be in place within two to three months.

The United States has ruled out committing troops, but is expected to provide logistics support. As a rule, Washington does not participate in peacekeeping missions unless it is commanding the force.

France, which now commands the small UNIFIL force that has been in southern Lebanon since 1978, will lead the expanded force until February, when it will hand over command to Italy.

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