Thursday, August 17, 2006

Lebanese Army Sends Troops to Border


Lebanese Army Sends Troops to Border
By Edward Cody and Colum Lynch
The Washington Post

Thursday 17 August 2006

Compromise will allow Hezbollah to keep arms.

Beirut - Breaking an impasse, the Lebanese government on Wednesday ordered army troops to deploy across southern Lebanon under a compromise arrangement that allows the Hezbollah militia to retain some of its arms caches near the border with Israel.

Military authorities said as many as 15,000 troops would begin taking up positions in devastated southern villages, seeking to defuse a threat to the U.N. cease-fire that went into effect Monday morning after 33 days of warfare between Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli military.

Early Thursday, the Israeli army began handing over positions to the United Nations, stepping up its withdrawal from southern Lebanon, according to the Associated Press. Hours later, Lebanon's army moved south and began deploying below the Litani River, the AP reported, citing a senior military official.

At the United Nations in New York on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged Secretary General Kofi Annan to ensure the complete disarmament of Hezbollah and to prevent it from being rearmed by Iran and Syria.

This is a "moment of truth" for the international community, she said. The world cannot "allow Hezbollah to rise again and threaten the future of the region."

Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Muslim movement, had refused to disarm and withdraw its fighters as long as Israeli troops remained on Lebanese soil. That stand risked undercutting the cease-fire accord, because the Lebanese military had declared it would deploy in the border hills only if Hezbollah fighters and weapons were pulled back. And without the Lebanese army to join U.N. forces along the border, Israeli officials said, they would not order the remaining Israeli soldiers to return home.

Lebanese political leaders tried to overcome the standoff with a compromise whose contours remained indistinct.

The government said in a statement that only the army would be allowed to carry weapons in the area. "There will be no authority or weapons besides those of the state," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said in explaining the decision. But the declaration skipped over the question of whether Hezbollah's weapons, many of them hidden underground, had to be removed or destroyed. Aridi said there would be no confrontation with Hezbollah fighters, who in any case do not carry weapons except in battle and often live in the border villages.

Hezbollah welcomed the army deployment and its ministers voted with the cabinet majority. But political sources involved in the decision said Hezbollah did so on condition that the army pledge not to look closely at whether all of the militia's armaments and missile stores were carried out of the border zone.

The jockeying over postwar arrangements reflected Hezbollah's concern about the Israeli troops still manning hilltop observer posts inside Lebanon. But it also betrayed increased sectarian tensions within Lebanon's fractured leadership, according to a number of officials participating in sometimes angry discussions.

Hezbollah, widely seen here as a victor in the month-long war, was reluctant to cede complete military control over south Lebanon to the army, which stood by as Hezbollah militiamen battled Israeli forces. On the other side, some Lebanese politicians, particularly Maronite Christians, were eager to get started on disarming Hezbollah, not only in the border zone but in the entire country. In a sign of the postwar balance of power, they did not prevail.

Hezbollah asserted itself politically as soon as the cease-fire began. Fighters put down their guns and turned into relief organizers, and the group immediately started handing out money to families for reconstructing their destroyed homes. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was outraged to see the government get outstripped in such a visible way, according to a political official who saw his display of anger.

In New York, Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, expressed concern that Hezbollah's intensified relief efforts could strengthen its political standing and future electoral prospects in Lebanon.

She said Israelis "expect" the international community to invest generously in the reconstruction of Lebanese villages "that Israel attacked." The alternative, she said, was an influx of Iranian cash to fund Hezbollah humanitarian activities. "The Iranians can send a check the next day to finance the places that were attacked by Israel," she said.

To find a long-term political settlement, the United Nations on Wednesday announced plans to send a high-level delegation to Lebanon and Israel on Thursday. The team - headed by envoys Vijay Nambiar and Terje Roed-Larsen - will try to develop a plan to ensure the eventual disarmament of Hezbollah and the demarcation of Lebanon's borders with Israel and Syria.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, has had about 2,000 soldiers posted along the border for two decades. But Israel dismissed this force as insufficient to prevent Hezbollah from building up its fighters and weapons in the area and launching attacks on northern Israel. As a result, the cease-fire agreement provides for reinforcing UNIFIL by as many as 13,000 additional troops.

France has offered to lead the reinforced UNIFIL detachment and contribute troops. The French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, after conferring with Siniora in Beirut, urged swift deployment of Lebanese army troops to provide reinforcement for the international peacekeepers as soon as possible.

Turkey also has offered to send troops. Its foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, also conferred with Lebanese officials in Beirut, along with the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Pakistan. Malaysia has said it, too, might send soldiers, along with Italy and several others. The Bush administration has said no U.S. troops will be involved.

Livni said that "Israel's enemies" should be prohibited from participating in a U.N. force. Her remarks followed reports by the Reuters news agency that the Israeli government objected to the participation of two Islamic countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The governments that have expressed willingness to participate have demanded that the Lebanese army first get into place in cooperation with UNIFIL and that the United Nations work out a clear mandate for the newly expanded force, Lebanese officials said. The last thing anyone wants, they added, is for the foreign troops to be regarded as a hostile force by Hezbollah fighters, many of whom will remain in place in their border villages with their weapons in storage but ready to be used again.

The Israeli military has refused to say how many Israeli soldiers were in Lebanon during the fighting and how many remain. Israeli sources acknowledged that the absence of large columns withdrawing suggested that a force closer to 10,000 - rather than the published estimate of 30,000 - had been in Lebanon at the height of the conflict. In any case, said a military spokesman in northern Israel, Capt. Mitch Pilcer, most of those leaving now are reservists who had been called up for active duty.

During his stay in Beirut, Douste-Blazy called on Israel to lift its air, sea and land blockade of Lebanon so the Beirut airport and seaport can reopen for relief shipments and commercial traffic. Lebanese security forces should reinforce their monitoring of cross-border traffic to calm Israeli fears that Hezbollah could replenish its weapons stores, he said.

Syria, which borders Lebanon on the north and east, has been the main transit point for Hezbollah weapons, most of which come from Iran, according to Lebanese intelligence.

The blockade held up relief supplies, commercial imports and fuel for Lebanon's electricity generators during the conflict. Electricity has been rationed in most of the country for the last several weeks; the distribution network was largely destroyed by Israeli bombing in the south. Lebanese authorities announced Wednesday, however, that two tanker ships were on the way after long delays to deliver much-needed fuel for the generators.

In Israel, Defense Minister Amir Peretz created a committee to investigate Israel's conduct during the war, the Associated Press reported, quoting unnamed senior defense officials.

The committee, made up of business executives and retired generals, will be chaired by former army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and is scheduled to present its preliminary findings within three weeks, the news agency said.

Lynch reported from the United Nations. Correspondent Doug Struck in Kiryat Shemona, Israel, contributed to this report.

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