U.N. peacekeepers have spotty record in region

New force being considered for Lebanon-Israel border area

July 26, 2006|By STEPHEN J. HEDGES | STEPHEN J. HEDGES,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- As diplomats talk about the prospects of a new multinational peacekeeping force to prevent further fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, a lesson or two can be drawn from the United Nations' multinational observer force of about 2,000 soldiers that is already there.

The experience of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, has not been a good one. On the scene since 1978 and comprising soldiers from France, Poland, India, Italy and a few other countries, UNIFIL was unable to stop the July 12 Hezbollah border raid that resulted in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. It was also unable to block retaliating Israeli troops from entering Lebanon a few days later.

Yesterday, an Israeli jet bombed one of UNIFIL's observation posts, killing several of its members. The U.N. says 249 UNIFIL members have been killed during its deployment.

UNIFIL's most effective role in the latest crisis has been helping to evacuate citizens, no small task in a war zone where civilian and military targets are close together.

Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan are expected to discuss - and possibly institute - a new multinational peacekeeping force for the Israeli-Lebanese border region.

Such a force's prospects for success are hardly certain.

"There's a reason that people turn to peacekeeping forces early on," said Anthony Cordesman, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's not a perfect option. It's not even a good option. It's one of the only options."

UNIFIL was deployed after a Palestinian Liberation Organization attack on an Israeli bus and a subsequent Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Its effectiveness has been questioned by Israeli officials, and its role as a peacekeeper is in doubt, as is its future.

The force's mandate is scheduled to expire Monday, and no members of the U.N. Security Council have formally asked that the UNIFIL mission be extended, though the French might do so this week, a U.S. government official said.

The mission awaiting any new force might require more authority to act, given the lack of a cease-fire.

"There's no peace to keep," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a military analysis group. "There would not be peace to keep until you had persuaded Hezbollah to voluntarily disarm, and they're not going to do that."

Pike and other military analysts suggested that talk of a peacekeeping force is premature until fighting has subsided or a diplomatic agreement, such as a cease-fire, is reached.

"You don't have an agreement on the mission," Cordesman said. "You haven't negotiated this with Lebanon. You haven't talked to the countries about what kind of rules of engagement they would agree to. And you haven't figured out when this force would arrive and whether there would be any kind of cease-fire."

Rice met with Lebanese President Fuad Siniora on Monday and with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas yesterday.

She and other U.S. officials have dismissed the possibility that U.S. forces, heavily engaged in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, would take part in a multinational security force in southern Lebanon.

Olmert suggested that NATO supply troops for the mission, a proposal that a NATO spokesman discouraged yesterday. NATO has forces deployed in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and the heavy U.S. influence within NATO might make it unacceptable as a peacekeeping force.

A European force, perhaps mixed with Arab or Egyptian troops, might be a possibility. The Associated Press reported yesterday that a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said the country would consider playing a major role in peacekeeping, but only if it had a strong U.N. mandate that would define its role and the rules of engagement.

German leaders have expressed lukewarm support for their military's participation in a peacekeeping mission.

Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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