Italy says it has U.S. nod to lead Lebanon force
ROME, Aug 24: Italy said today it had won US support to lead a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon and was confident Europe, especially France, would boost a so far limited commitment to supply troops.
Prime Minister Romano Prodi said US President George W Bush had told him by telephone Washington had a ''positive'' view of Italy's offer to lead the force and that it was also leaning on allies to provide troops.
''I expect that reluctant or not, smiling or not, there will be an ample European contribution,'' Prodi said in an interview with RAI state radio.
''Bush is making a strong effort to put pressure on friendly countries in order to broaden the number of participants in the mission.'' In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush had ''underscored that the United States is fully committed to (the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon)''.
Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said French President Jacques Chirac would pledge more troops today, as Italy piled pressure on EU partners in particular to stump up more troops for a mission authorised to total 15,000.
He said he expected other European nations, - more cautious than Italy, which plans to send up to 3,000 troops, - to commit more resources at a meeting of EU foreign ministers tomorrow.
''We'll go to Brussels tomorrow in the conviction that there is a growing willingness for a wide undertaking,'' D'Alema told a joint news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
''The latest news is that tonight Chirac should announce a substantial increase,'' said D'Alema.
France initially led calls for a robust international force to police a UN-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas but has been criticised for pledging only an extra 200 soldiers to boost an existing UN force of 2,000. With the truce since the month-long war now into its 10th day, both Israel and Lebanon are keen for an Italian-led force to police the border area.
Livni called on the international community to take advantage urgently of a ''window of opportunity'' for peace. ''We are being watched ... by the extremists who want to put the region in flames,'' she said.
She urged other EU states to ''take example from Italy''.
Potential donors to the force have expressed concern about the lack of a clear and strong mandate which could leave troops unable to defend themselves if they come under fire, like the existing UN force in Lebanon.
But the United Nations has now authorised the force to use weapons in self-defence and to defend civilians.
D'Alema said this had given the force the teeth it needed to respond, but acknowledged the mission was complex and risky.
Before Livni's visit, he had warned Italy would not send troops unless Israel respected the ceasefire.
''If the international forces find themselves facing hostile acts, they should react with force. And if someone wants to violate the Blue Line and carry out hostile acts, the international force should react with force,'' he said.
''Naturally, we know that this is a complex mission, even a risky one, and also for that reason we ask that the international community goes with a solid force.''