- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

VIENNA, Austria — At least 15 nations are considering sending troops to be a part of an eventual U.N.-mandated inter- national force in southern Lebanon.

Scores of others, such as the United States and Britain, have ruled out sending soldiers. Many of them are skittish about a Middle East quagmire or are stretched thin elsewhere.

Over the whole enterprise hangs a Catch-22: Israel refuses to leave until the force is in place, and nations won’t deploy forces until a cease-fire is in effect.

“We do not want foreign troops to commit suicide by entering Lebanon under the current situation,” said Syed Hamid Albar, the foreign minister of Malaysia, which has 1,000 soldiers on standby.

Diplomats are preoccupied with pushing through a U.N. resolution aimed at ending nearly a month of fighting before they tackle the question of a multinational force.

The 15 countries willing in principle to deploy forces — provided they receive a strong U.N. mandate with clear rules of engagement — are Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, Ghana, Indonesia, Italy, Lithuania, Malaysia, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Turkey. Poland has 200 soldiers serving as U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon and has said it is inclined to keep them there.

Three of the 15 have offered specifics of what they are ready to commit: Malaysia, which says its 1,000-strong contingent would be backed by armored vehicles; Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, which has offered about 800 troops; and Norway, which has pledged nearly 100 marines and four missile torpedo boats.

Italy last month promised a “substantial contribution.” Other forces could come from Turkey, which has experience leading U.N. peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Somalia; and France, which has about 1,300 personnel and several frigates in the area.

“I don’t foresee any more than 5,000 French in the zone,” said Cmdr. Jerome Erulin, a French military spokesman, cautioning that it was too early to determine his nation’s role. That figure “would be the high end of the range,” he said.

Speculation on who might command a multinational force in southern Lebanon has centered on Turkey and France.

A daunting tangle of complications threatens to bedevil the international effort even before it gets under way.

Among the more striking examples is Germany. It has not ruled out a troop contribution, but its leaders — mindful of the country’s Nazi past — are eager to avoid any scenario in which German soldiers wind up in conflict with Israelis.

Among the many other thorny issues, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said his country would stop its offensive only after the deployment of a robust international force — “an army with combat units” ready and willing to rein in Hezbollah.

That raises the question of whether the Europeans and others are prepared for a campaign that could go beyond peacekeeping and firing weapons purely in self-defense to the potentially bloody business of engaging and disarming Hezbollah militants. With Hezbollah mixed among civilians, that involves a high risk that the force would cause civilian casualties.

Some military analysts have suggested that Hezbollah, if forced back by international troops, could lob its rockets over their heads and keep hitting targets in northern Israel. If Israel wanted to strike back by ground assault, it presumably would be up to the force to stop it.

The United States says it plans to help train and equip the Lebanese army, which many hope ultimately would take over the border area. Britain has hinted it may offer technical assistance.

Questions have been raised about whether the United States, busy training Iraqi security forces, has enough instructors to train Lebanese troops, and whether that training would be in Lebanon or in another country.

Cyprus has been mentioned as a staging point for international troops, but Turkey, which does not recognize the island’s Greek-led government, would be restricted to using Cyprus’ northern, ethnically Turkish part.

Much of the Muslim world gives broad support to the idea of sending troops. Even Malaysia’s largest opposition bloc, the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, says the world’s Muslims have a moral responsibility to help end the violence.

“The mission is good because it can prevent a broader Middle East conflict,” said Cholil Munawir, a supporter of Indonesia’s Islamic Community Forum, which bitterly opposes Israel’s campaign in Lebanon.

Elsewhere, public resistance is building, just as it did before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In Germany, polls suggest two in three people oppose committing troops.

“Nigerian soldiers should not be sent to a war that is none of our business,” said Ahmed Mohammed, a politician in Nigeria, which has not specified how many troops it is prepared to send.

“We cannot continue to sacrifice the lives of our young men for the mistakes of others.”

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