- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

BEIRUT — The prospect that a triumphal Hezbollah militia will give up its weapons slumped yesterday, with the Lebanese government backing away from a vague promise to disarm it, and a promised international force showing no interest in the mission.

The Lebanese Cabinet was largely silent on the issue at a meeting yesterday, where it agreed to begin deploying 15,000 soldiers today to replace departing Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.

In keeping with its own commitment to deploy its army, Lebanon early today began moving convoys south toward the border with Israel, Reuters reported. Trucks, armored troop carriers and jeeps were streaming south through the town of Nabatiyeh and were expected to start crossing the Litani River shortly.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, said in an interview published yesterday that it was up to the Lebanese, not the international community, to force the Iranian-armed Islamist militia to surrender its missiles and other heavy weapons.

At a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni said Israel wants an expanded U.N. force to help monitor the Lebanese border to prevent Iran and Syria from replenishing Hezbollah’s weapons.

She stressed that implementation of U.N. Resolution 1701 that led to Monday’s cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah is a test for the international community and the Lebanese government.

“I think this is a moment of truth for the international community,” she said. “A full implementation of Resolution 1701 can lead to a change in the region, in Lebanon, and lead to a better future for us all.”

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in Paris that France was willing to lead the enlarged U.N. force in Lebanon until at least February. But she complained that the force’s mandate was “fuzzy” and said the peacekeepers need to have sufficient resources and a clear mission.

“When you send in a force and its mission is not precise enough, and its resources are not well-adapted or large enough, that can turn into a catastrophe, including for the soldiers that we send,” Miss Alliot-Marie told reporters.

No country considering sending troops for the mission has forgotten what happened the last time Hezbollah objected to a foreign troop presence in Lebanon. It sent a suicide bomber to destroy a barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French paratroopers in 1983.

In an interview yesterday with USA Today, Miss Rice said the expanded U.N. force in Lebanon — known as UNIFIL — will have a robust mandate, but will not be searching for militias and weapons.

“I don’t think there is an expectation that this force is going to physically disarm Hezbollah. I think it’s a little bit of a misreading of how you disarm a militia,” she said.

“You have to have a plan, first of all, for the disarmament of a militia, and then the hope is that some people lay down their arms voluntarily.”

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who has achieved heroic status in the Arab world simply by keeping his forces in the fight against Israel for a month, said in an address broadcast on Monday that his militia would not give up its weapons.

He also insisted that Hezbollah would not give up its positions in southern Lebanon, though the militia’s top official in the south, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, told reporters in Tyre yesterday that he welcomed the Lebanese army’s deployment into the region.

“Just like in the past, Hezbollah had no visible military presence, and there will not be any visible presence now,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying. In fact, most of Hezbollah’s most dangerous weapons have been well-hidden in bunkers and tunnels.

The State Department, which has classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, told reporters in Washington it would be up to Beirut to disarm Hezbollah.

The United States will be “working with the Lebanese government to create a situation, an environment where this can all happen,” spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said yesterday. “This is an ongoing process. The [Lebanese] government has said it is committed to doing this.”

Lebanese and U.N. Security Council statements both allude to disarming Hezbollah but, in recognition of the complexities of Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing arrangements, do not say so directly.

Under Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s “seven-point plan” for peace with Israel, endorsed by his Cabinet three weeks ago, the government “extends its authority over its territory through its own legitimate armed forces, such that there will be no weapons or authority other than that of the Lebanese state” in accordance with national law.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution uses similarly careful language, saying there should be “no weapons without the consent of the government of Lebanon and no authority other than that of the government of Lebanon.”

The council did unanimously agree that the land between the Israel-Lebanon border and the Litani River should be free of any armed personnel, assets or weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL.

• Sharon Behn contributed to this report from Washington.

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