Lebanon hopes troop offer will secure ceasefire

BEIRUT — The embattled Lebanese government was Tuesday hoping an offer to deploy its troops to the international border would secure Israel’s agreement to ceasefire and withdraw its troops from the south.

The “historic” agreement to send troops to the southern stronghold of Shiite group Hizbollah for the first time in decades met with a cautious welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who described it as an “interesting step.” The decision, adopted at an extraordinary Cabinet meeting late Monday, came as world powers wrangled at the United Nations over the wording of a Security Council resolution to end the four-week-old Lebanon conflict.

“The decision to send the army is a way to help Lebanon’s efforts to at least amend the resolution which in its current form favours Israel,” said political analyst Walid Sharara.

“It tells the world that Lebanon is capable of extending its control over all its territory without the need for an international force, and thus would foil Israeli attempts to continue to occupy parts of the south,” he said.

The Lebanese government said it was ready to deploy 15,000 troops to the south once Israel had pulled out all its soldiers from the area which had been under Hizbollah’s control since Israel’s 2000 pullout.

It would be the first major deployment of Lebanese troops to the border region since the late 1960s when Palestinian and Lebanese fighters established themselves in the area for a war against neighbouring Israel.

Successive governments had refused to deploy troops to the south after Israel ended its 22-year occupation, saying any such force would simply serve as a “police force” to protect Israel. Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said the “historic decision settles the issue of Lebanon’s defence strategy”, which had been the subject of fierce debate for months within Lebanon’s deeply divided political elite before Israel launched its offensive on July 12.

“It confirms that the only national defence strategy is the one drawn by the government,” he said.

Asked about the future military presence of Hizbollah in the border area, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said: “Where the army will be, it will be on its own.” He said “the move is very important and paves the way for ideas and initiatives meant to help put an end to this aggression, based on respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, its territorial rights, and an Israeli pullout from territories it has occupied.” Hizbollah officials were not available for comment, but Defence Minister Elias Murr said the decision was adopted unanimously by the government, including Hizbollah’s two ministers.

“This is a clear message to the international community and the UN Security Council before its meeting about Lebanon’s clear intention to send the army” to the south, he said.

Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict have faltered after Lebanon objected to a draft resolution that called only for a halt to “offensive” Israeli operations and did not demand an immediate Israeli withdrawal from its territory.

France, one of the co-sponsors of the draft, said it was prepared to accept amendments proposed by Lebanon with the support of the 22-member Arab League.

And Russia said it would not back a resolution that was “useless” for the Lebanese government.

But the United States, the draft’s other sponsor, seemed less willing to consider changes.

“I understand both parties aren’t going to agree with all aspects of the resolution,” President George W. Bush told reporters.

Thousands of Israeli troops have been operating in southern Lebanon since Hizbollah fighters captured two of their comrades in a deadly cross-border raid on July 12.

Israeli commanders have said they now occupy a border strip up to eight kilometres deep.

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