France raises Mideast troop commitment
PARIS – French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday that France will commit 2,000 troops to a new international peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. The decision breaks a stalemate that has held up dispatch of soldiers whom diplomats call crucial to maintaining the 11-day-old cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel.
Chirac’s announcement in a nationally televised address followed days of intense negotiations with the United Nations, Lebanon and Israel over European concerns that the force would have no clear mandate and inadequate rights to open fire in defense of itself or civilians.
“We obtained the necessary clarifications from the U.N. on the chain of command, which needs to be simple, coherent and reactive,” he said, “and the rules of engagement, which must guarantee the freedom of movement of the force and its ability to operate when confronted with hostile conditions.”
France helped broker the U.N. cease-fire and initially indicated it would commit 2,000 troops to help maintain the truce. But Chirac was chastised at home and abroad when he later said he would dispatch only 200 engineers to augment the 200 French troops serving in an existing U.N. monitoring force on the Lebanon-Israel border.
Many European countries have expressed reluctance to take part in the operation out of fear their soldiers would become enmeshed in shooting conflicts with Hezbollah or Israel. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is scheduled to meet with European foreign ministers in Brussels today in an effort to pressure more countries to commit troops.
U.N. officials hope the force will eventually total 15,000 foreign troops. The force will be an expansion of UNIFIL, the 28-year-old U.N. monitoring force which operates along the Lebanon-Israel border with about 2,000 troops and a French commanding general. It would operate with 15,000 Lebanese troops as well.
Chirac said he hoped France’s decision Thursday would spur other countries to join the force, including the United States and Britain. Both have said they are too taxed in Iraq and Afghanistan to take part.
In a statement issued in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he is vacationing, President Bush gave no sign of reversing that decision.
So far, Italy is the only other European country to make a major commitment, offering to send as many as 3,000 troops and to command the force.
But direction of the new, expanded force appears set to be in French hands. French and senior U.N. officials said French Maj. Gen. Alain Pelligrini will retain command of the U.N. mission until his term ends next February. U.N. officials said an Italian general will head a new military command center at U.N. headquarters to map out strategy for the operation.