- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

World leaders wrestled yesterday with the idea of deploying an international security force to southern Lebanon, but the United States said it would wait until a United Nations team returns from the region later this week before deciding on the best way to tackle the crisis.

The State Department said that the Group of Eight nations, which concluded their annual summit in Russia, found the concept of a security force “attractive,” but there are “many, many different questions” to be answered first.

The force would be deployed to help enforce a cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah.

“We want to hear back from the U.N. assessment team that’s traveling in the region about what combination of a security-monitoring presence — what, combined with Lebanese armed forces — might provide a more secure, stable atmosphere,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

He was vague about a potential trip to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, saying she intends to travel “at some point in the future,” but she wants to hear from the U.N. team first.

“Her goal in traveling to the region would be to try to further the diplomacy that would lay the groundwork for a lasting cessation of violence,” he said. “What you don’t want to do is you don’t want to be back in the same position three weeks from now, three months from now, six months from now, where a group of extremists, terrorists and their backers can drag the region into a crisis.”

Miss Rice is scheduled to travel to Asia next week, and Mr. McCormack did not indicate that she might change her plans.

A trio of U.N. envoys with long experience in the region has been shuttling between capitals, and last night the three were expected to carry some Lebanese proposals to the Israeli government.

The proposed international force could either be an extension of the existing U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, or a U.N.-authorized effort that could temporarily serve beside it.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to governments “to make sure that we have the troops — well-trained, well-equipped troops — that can go in quite quickly” once the Security Council agrees on the details.

At the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, President Bush was cautious in responding to the proposal for a security force, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair backed the idea.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said that his nation could contribute 8,000 troops to the effort, in addition to the 2,000 already in the region.

At the United Nations, Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari told the Security Council that Israel’s bombing of Lebanon would energize the “most radical elements” in the region.

“We are now in a situation of open war. The consequences are serious and the impact is devastating not only on Lebanon and Israel but on the entire Middle East,” Mr. Gambari said.

“We cannot see how this destruction contributed to the goal of ensuring that the government of Lebanon is able to exert its control over the country, particularly the south,” he said.

The United Nations said that nearly 200 Lebanese civilians have been killed at least 500 injured by the Israeli shelling. It also said that tens of thousands of Lebanese have been displaced by the attacks, and thousands of foreign nationals are trying to get out.

Betsy Pisik reported from New York.

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