Hezbollah Pledges To ‘Defend’ Lebanon, Complicating Truce

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The New York Sun

UNITED NATIONS — Hezbollah’s pledge to maintain its heavily armed presence in southern Lebanon might further complicate a task that diplomats say is already difficult enough: creating an international force to support the Lebanese army’s deployment in the region.

As the government of Prime Minister Siniora wavered on its offer to station 15,000 Lebanese troops in the south, the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Alain Pellegrini, said yesterday that a “robust” international presence is not expected to materialize prior to the deployment of the Lebanese army.

The slow pace of the troop deployment, expected to slow the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, might render moot contradictory declarations by President Bush, who said Hezbollah lost the war, and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who claimed victory on his group’s Lebanese-based television station, Al Manar.

An emboldened Sheik Nasrallah said yesterday that, far from disarming soon — as required by U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which was passed Friday to create the political framework for a cessation of hostilities — Hezbollah is the only force capable of “protecting Lebanon” against Israel.

Al Manar carried the speech by Sheik Nasrallah, who also declared a “strategic, historic victory” in the war and pledged to pay the suffering residents of southern Lebanon a year’s worth of rent, shortly before Mr. Bush addressed reporters in Washington.

“If I were Hezbollah, I’d be claiming victory, too,” Mr. Bush said. “But how can you claim victory when at one time you were a state within a state, safe within southern Lebanon, and now you’re going to be replaced by a Lebanese army and an international force?”

That international force, to comprise as many as 15,000 troops, was part of the council resolution on Friday. But the French UNIFIL commander, Mr. Pellegrini, said the new international presence — beefing up the 2,000 mostly Ghanaian and Indian UNIFIL soldiers now in the region — is not expected to arrive before the Lebanese army is deployed.

The additional soldiers “need to arrive as quickly as possible,” Mr. Pellegrini told the Associated Press in an interview from his Naqoura headquarters yesterday.”But before that, there is something that can be done quickly — a deployment of the Lebanese army.”

Although they are aware the “robust” international force needs to be formed and deployed more quickly than other, more traditional blue-helmeted forces, it will take some time for such a force to be ready to go to Lebanon, several U.N. officials said yesterday.

Military attaches from countries that are expected to contribute troops to the new force have met twice at Turtle Bay, on Saturday and yesterday. But so far, none of those countries have

made official pledges of troops to the peacekeeping department, its spokesman, Nicholas Birnbach, told The New York Sun.

Two French military officials, a lieutenant colonel and a general, are scheduled to arrive in New York today to conduct deployment planning meetings with the heads of the peacekeeping department. Italy, Germany, Turkey, and New Zealand are among the nations that have indicated they might participate in the force that France will likely lead. Hundreds of French troops are reportedly on ships off the Lebanese coast and are ready to land as soon as decisions are made in Paris and Turtle Bay.

According to a UNIFIL press release, Mr. Pellegrini met yesterday with “senior representatives” of the Israeli and Lebanese army to discuss the details of the Israeli withdrawal and Lebanese deployment, which, resolution 1701 stipulates, should be done “in parallel.”

But over the weekend the Lebanese government postponed a meeting to discuss the deployment of 15,000 army troops in the south. The postponement was only for “technical” reasons, the Lebanese envoy to the United Nations, Nouhad Mahmoud, told the Sun yesterday, and the Beirut government will soon reconvene to discuss the issue.

However, other diplomats said it was Hezbollah — which felt deceived by the Friday-night resolution that it had believed would be more favorable to the Shiite organization — that forced the Lebanese government to postpone the deployment of the army, raising new doubts about the group’s reported agreement to the Lebanese army presence in the south.

“Who will defend Lebanon in case of a new Israeli offensive?” Sheik Nasrallah asked in his speech yesterday. “The Lebanese army and international troops are incapable of protecting Lebanon.”

Now, therefore, is the “wrong time” to talk about disarming, he said. “We came out victorious in a war in which big Arab armies were defeated” in the past. To talk about laying weapons down now is a “mistake in timing, both psychologically and morally,” he said.

The New York Sun

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