(photo credit: AP)
Italy told Israel and Lebanon it will contribute a large number of troops to an enhanced UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon, and possibly even lead the force, after it became clear the "whole machinery was stalling," Italian Ambassador Sandro De Bernardin told The Jerusalem Post Monday.
"Italy has always been strongly committed to contributing to peace in this region, and when it was evident that a solution to the conflict with Hizbullah needed international intervention, we said we were happy to make our contribution," he said.
"We were worried when the whole machinery was stalling because of difficulties in the French bid for taking the leadership, and expressed to all the parties concerned, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that we were willing to consider a strong commitment to the force, and that if France was stepping out [of the leadership role], we would be willing to take on the responsibility."
De Bernardin said Italy could not "go it alone" and hoped that efforts to bring other nations into the force would bear fruit.
A EU meeting regarding the multinational force is scheduled to take place in Brussels on Wednesday, amid the hope this will lead more EU countries to make a commitment to send troops. European officials have said, however, that they didn't want the force - for political reasons - to be perceived solely as a force of the West.
"Obviously there will be a strong European involvement," one European official said, "but we also want to see a Muslim representation to show that it represents the whole international community."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who met UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Jerusalem on Monday, urged him and the UN "to make a greater effort to bring more countries into the force."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said Israel will not accept the participation in the force of countries without diplomatic ties with Israel, ruling out Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia, all of whom have expressed interest in participating.
Turkey has also expressed interest and - according to some diplomatic officials - Morocco is also being considered.
Diplomatic officials said France, which at the beginning of the war pushed hard for an international force and said it would be willing to lead it, changed its mind because of concern that its badly strained relations with Syria would lead Hizbullah to target French soldiers.
France, the officials pointed out, was instrumental in pushing through UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which forced Syria out of Lebanon. In addition, it was a key force behind the establishment of the commission of inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was a personal friend of French President Jacques Chirac.
That assassination poisoned the relations between Chirac and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In addition, France is expected to vote next month for sanctions against Iran if it doesn't stop uranium enrichment. There is concern that Iran might retaliate by instructing Hizbullah to target French soldiers.
The French considerations, the officials said, were not dissimilar to the rational behind the United States' decision to not take part in the force.
Italy, on the other hand, has good relations with Syria.
De Bernardin said the idea of dispatching a significant force to south Lebanon still had to go through the Italian parliament. He said Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who spoke about the force Sunday with both Olmert and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, was working on the basis of a "preliminary parliamentary green light" he received last week from the legislature's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.
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