August 21, 2006

Italy ready to lead Lebanon force if Europe commits

By Stephen Brown

ROME (Reuters) - Italy is ready to lead a U.N. force in
southern Lebanon if its European partners commit themselves to
the operation, which the Italian opposition warned on Monday
could prove to be a "kamikaze" mission.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi, asked by Israel's Ehud Olmert
on Sunday to lead the new multinational force of up to 15,000
troops, sought French, German and Turkish assurances this
weekend that Italy would not head into Lebanon alone.

"I understand we all have our problems, but we must go
forward in unity," he was quoted as saying by Corriere della
Sera newspaper in telephone calls to muster support.

But the centre-right opposition, mindful of public
sensitivity to military casualties which forced Prodi's
predecessor Silvio Berlusconi to scale back Italy's presence in
Iraq, said Rome's enthusiasm was unmatched by its neighbors.

"Chirac will send a few generals, Germany a launch or two,
while we have to send troops dressed as kamikazes in the
Italian flag," said Francesco Storace of the rightist National

The Italian government has approved sending up to 3,000
troops, making it the biggest contributor so far to the
peacekeeping force that will try to uphold the current truce.

In contrast, France has scaled down its commitment to 200
troops for now, due to worries about the chain of command.

Turkey may be a major contributor but like Italy, Spain and
others it awaits clear rules of engagement by the United


Italy's so far unmatched commitment stems from its
proximity to the Middle East and Prodi's wish to reverse the
isolation in Europe that Rome suffered as a result of the
pro-U.S. stance of Berlusconi.

"Italy can resume the role it used to have, like in the
Suez crisis," Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Bobo Craxi told
La Repubblica daily, referring to Italian mediation in the

Italy hosted Lebanon crisis talks in July but the meeting
was criticized for not agreeing to call for an immediate

Prodi's office said calls with Olmert and Lebanese Prime
Minister Fouad Siniora on Sunday elicited praise for Italy
"with its excellent relations with all countries in the area,
being ready for a role of primary importance in the UNIFIL

Prodi has not yet spoken of an Italian command, but Defense
Minister Arturo Parisi has said this could happen "eventually."

One general with peacekeeping experience said Italy's good
relations in the Middle East made it diplomatically suitable.

"I believe an Italian command would meet with approval
among the Arabs and Israelis," Carlo Cabigiosu, a retired
general who led a multinational force in Kosovo, told La

"And we have a good card to play with Hizbollah: our good
relations with Iran," he said, referring to Iran's patronage of
the Lebanese-based guerrillas whose month-long war with Israel
devastated southern Lebanon.

Prodi also runs the risk of opposition to the Lebanon force
emerging inside his own coalition, which includes communists
who recently tried to block Prodi from keeping Italian soldiers
on a NATO-led peace and reconstruction mission in Afghanistan.