A top Lebanese government official said Wednesday evening that the Cabinet had approved a plan to deploy the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) south of the Litani River starting Thursday.
The twice-delayed meeting approved sending the army to the south of the country, where it will slowly take over territory from which IDF forces have begun to withdraw.
Earlier Wednesday, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz asserted that the Israeli forces would not withdraw from Lebanon
before an alternative force came to replace them.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora asserted that there would be no place in Lebanon that was not under the control of the LAF. He also insisted that in the future there would be no armed forces other than the Lebanese army.
The UN cease-fire resolution clearly states that the area south of the Litani river must be demilitarized.
The decision appeared to contradict a statement made by senior senior Hizbullah official Hassan Fadlallah, who stated on Wednesday that the issue of his organization's disarmament was not on the agenda.
According to Fadlallah, who spoke with al-Jazeera, Hizbullah will not evacuate its operatives from southern Lebanon since they are the ones who populate the region. "Any such withdrawal means the evacuation of southern Lebanon," he said.
An official in the Prime Minister's Office warned on Tuesday that the IDF would have to resume operations in Lebanon if Hizbullah is not disarmed.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah reportedly reached a deal allowing Hizbullah to keep its weapons but refrain from exhibiting them in public. Israeli officials called the arrangement a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which passed over the weekend and was approved on Sunday by the cabinet.
"The resolution is clear that Hizbullah needs to be removed from the border area, embargoed and dismantled," the official said. "If the resolution is not implemented, we will have to take action to prevent the rearming of Hizbullah. I don't think backtracking will serve any useful purpose. There has to be pressure on Hizbullah to disarm or there will have to be another round."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to raise the issue when she meets in New York on Wednesday with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Annan angered Israeli officials when he told Channel 2 on Tuesday that "dismantling Hizbullah is not the direct mandate of the UN," which could only help Lebanon disarm the organization. Annan upset officials further when he said that deploying international forces in Lebanon would take "weeks or months," and not days as expected.
Israeli officials said the IDF would not complete its withdrawal from southern Lebanon until the international force was deployed - even if it took months - to prevent a vacuum in Lebanon that could endanger Israeli civilians. An official in the Prime Minister's Office accused Annan of having an anti-Israel agenda.
"He has been one-sided," the official said. "He tried to be even-handed in a situation that was clearly asymmetrical. When one side committed crimes against humanity and engaged in genocide and the other side defended itself, he cannot treat us in the same manner."
Annan rejected charges of bias, saying, "I have been very hard on Hizbullah and condemned Hizbullah for what it has done. I have condemned Israel for what I consider excessive use of force but it doesn't mean I am taking one side."
Livni will also meet with US diplomatic officials and Jewish leaders during her 24-hour visit. The goals of the trip include advancing Israel's interests in talks on implementing the cease-fire in Lebanon, expediting the deployment of an international force and bringing about the return of the kidnapped IDF soldiers.
Annan is set to make key decisions about the role of the multinational force. Livni had planned to visit New York over the weekend but her original trip was blocked by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovich said implementation of the cease-fire was "good so far" and "going according to plan." He said Livni wanted to make sure that UNIFIL's effectiveness would be maximized.
According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, the two main tasks of the expanded force would be enforcing a "Hizbullah-free zone" in south Lebanon and an international arms embargo on Hizbullah. He said the resolution detailed the placement of international forces at all crossing points into Lebanon, comprising those from Syria as well as airports and seaports.
"The resolution meets Israel's expectations," Regev said. "The focus now is on ensuring its full and complete implementation. Unfortunately, there have been too many UN resolutions on Lebanon that have gathered dust in the archives and have not changed anything. The challenge now is to bring about the expeditious implementation of 1701."
Under the UN resolution, 15,000 Lebanese troops, with the help of an expanded UNIFIL, would take over the area between the Litani River, 30 kilometers north of Israel, and the frontier to create a buffer zone free of Hizbullah gunmen.
"She will discuss [with Annan] the importance of having the international forces in Lebanon as expeditiously as possible," Regev said of Livni.
Israel wants a speedy deployment "firstly to allow the Israeli troops to pull out of south Lebanon and to ensure the creation of the Hizbullah-free zone in the south... and secondly to make sure that the international arms embargo on Hizbullah is implemented," he said.
"We have to have the resolution translated into reality," Regev said.
Forty-five countries have attended technical sessions for potential contributors to a beefed-up UNIFIL, and the United Nations is hopeful that the first announcements of new troop commitments will be made at a formal meeting expected to take place on Thursday, UN officials said.
France and the United States have sent military planners to meet with UN peacekeeping planners to determine how countries could participate in the proposed 15,000-strong UN force, said a UN official familiar with the process.
The doctrine of operations for the force is reportedly in draft form and will be shared with the potential troop contributors at Thursday's meeting, the UN official said.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that 28 countries had attended a technical meeting on Saturday and 17 countries had attended a similar meeting on Monday.
"We hope to have a more formal meeting with troop contributors on Thursday," he said.
The UN has not received any formal offers of troops for UNIFIL, although France, Italy, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have indicated they would make significant contributions. A dozen other countries have also expressed a willingness to help.
"We would like to get firm commitments of troops as soon as possible," Dujarric said.
France is expected to lead the expanded force, which currently has 2,000 troops and is commanded by French Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini. But UN officials and diplomats said France had not made any announcement of how many troops it planned to send, and that this was holding up announcements of troop commitments from other countries.
"It's a chicken and egg situation, as it often is in our efforts to generate a force," Dujarric said. "We're dependent on the member states to come up with firm offers... We're in intensive discussions with them, and hopefully we'll flush out and get some firm commitments."
US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are also making calls to drum up troops for the expanded UN force, US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said.
A French colonel started working with UN military planners on Tuesday, and Bolton said the Pentagon was also sending a military planner. A French general is expected at UN headquarters on Wednesday to work as a liaison between the UN Peace-keeping Department and Paris, UN diplomats said.
AP contributed to this report.
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