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Italy offers UN force leadership, but Europe slow to commit troops

ROME -- Prime Minister Romano Prodi said yesterday that he has told UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that Italy is willing to command the UN force in Lebanon.

Prodi said that Annan would make the decision about who would lead the force ``after completing an analysis and discussions with the leaders of countries that are interested in joining the mission," the Italian news agencies ANSA and Apcom reported.

``It is a decision that Kofi Annan will take at the end of broad consultations," Prodi told reporters in the seaside resort of Castiglione della Pescaia. ``We will have a definitive solution in the coming days."

Italy did not commit itself to specific numbers of troops, but has indicated it would be prepared to send 3,000 soldiers, the largest contingent to date.

European Union diplomats will meet tomorrow to consider the number of troops the 25 EU nations will contribute to an expanded UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.

With the United States viewed by many as too closely allied to Israel, Europe is uniquely positioned to take the lead to help end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants.

So far, no European countries have stepped up with a large contribution of troops, but Germany's chancellor said yesterday that she is confident Europe will contribute ground troops.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said she believes ``there will and should be a European contribution with ground troops" in Lebanon. ``However, all the countries are saying what Germany is saying: We need the right rules for the deployment" and the approval of the Lebanese government, she said.

President Bush called yesterday for quick deployment of an international force to help uphold the fragile cease-fire.

A UN cease-fire resolution has authorized up to 15,000 UN peacekeepers to help an equal number of Lebanese troops extend their authority into south Lebanon, which has been controlled by Hezbollah, as Israel withdraws its soldiers. The UN wants 3,500 ground troops by next Monday.

Germany has said it would not send troops, but will offer naval forces to help patrol the country's coastline. With their country's Nazi-era past in mind, German officials have expressed concern about deploying German troops in any situation that might bring them into confrontation with Israeli soldiers.

A key worry for many countries is whether the force will be called on to disarm Hezbollah fighters, as called for in a September 2004 UN resolution. Analysts also said the latest cease-fire resolution is unclear and open to interpretation.

``Europe has an aversion to sending troops to places where long-term stability is not ensured," said Jana Hybaskova, the European Parliament's main expert on the Middle East.

France, which commands the existing UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, had been expected to make a significant new contribution that would form the backbone of the expanded force. But President Jacques Chirac disappointed the UN and other countries last week by merely doubling France's contingent of 200 troops.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne said yesterday that France was waiting for details about how the force would operate.

Finland said it would send up to 250 peacekeepers to Lebanon, but said they would not be deployed until November. Turkey said it wants to study the force's mandate before making any decisions. Spain has discussed sending troops but has yet to make a concrete offer, and Austria, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland have made no offer at all.

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