Where are the peacekeepers?

August 25, 2006

When United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan meets with European leaders, as he is expected to do today, he must secure commitments for enough troops to field the promised peacekeeping force in south Lebanon and empower it to do the job. The force can't be robust in name only. The duration of the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah militia fighters depends on a strong, credible force. And freeing Lebanon from Israel's air and sea blockade won't occur without those peacekeepers on the ground.

Concerns about assembling the multinational force surfaced earlier this week when France did an about-face on its commitment to head the contingent of 15,000 soldiers, offering only 400 troops. France, which negotiated the U.N. cease-fire agreement along with the United States, was leading with its chin. The substance of its reservations - that peacekeepers didn't have precise rules of engagement and could be caught in the cross-fire, as they were in Bosnia - had been aired at the agreement's signing. But as a co-author of the resolution, France should have led the way on resolving the issue - not reduced its troops.

Yesterday, in another about-face, France reasserted its commitment to the U.N. force and agreed to increase its deployment to 2,000. It did the right thing, which should help bring along other reluctant participants.

Italy's pledge of 2,000 soldiers is conditioned on Israel not violating the cease-fire. And the Israelis shouldn't give the Italians any reason to rescind their commitment - unless they want to be drawn back into a bloody ground war. With France now on board, European leaders should finalize the make-up of the force and include one or two Muslim countries, regardless of their relationship with Israel. The U.N. peacekeepers will join 15,000 Lebanese troops in patrolling south Lebanon, the base of Hezbollah's military and social power.

If U.N. members can't fulfill this critical aspect of the cease-fire resolution, it will signal an unwillingness to invest any capital in resolving the conflict long term. That will require putting a stop to arms shipments to Hezbollah and later stripping the group of its weapons. The Lebanese government must take the initiative on that front and reclaim the south under the concept of "one state, one gun, one country."

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