Complications abound as nations weigh roles in southern Lebanon peace force

Across the globe, at least 15 nations are considering sending troops to an eventual UN-mandated international "stabilization force" in southern Lebanon - including Malaysia, Indonesia and Norway. But scores of others - skittish about a potential Middle East quagmire or already stretched thin elsewhere, such as the United States and Britain - have ruled out sending soldiers. And over the whole enterprise hangs a huge Catch-22: Israel refuses to leave until the force is in place, and nations won't go in until a cease-fire is in effect. "We do not want foreign troops to commit suicide by entering Lebanon under the current situation," said Syed Hamid Albar, the foreign minister of Malaysia, which has 1,000 soldiers on standby. That accounts for the wait-and-see approach adopted by many nations. Diplomats are preoccupied with pushing through a UN resolution aimed at ending nearly a month of fighting before they tackle the question of a multinational force. The 15 countries willing in principle to deploy forces - provided they get a strong UN mandate with clear rules of engagement - are Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, Ghana, Indonesia, Italy, Lithuania, Malaysia, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Turkey. There is also Poland, which already has 200 soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and has said it's inclined to keep them there. Three of the 15 have offered specifics of what they're ready to commit: Malaysia, which says its 1,000-strong contingent would be backed by armored vehicles; Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, which has offered a battalion of about 800 men; and Norway, which has pledged a squadron of nearly 100 marines and four missile torpedo boats. Sizable troop contributions could come from Italy, which last month promised a "substantial contribution"; Turkey, which has experience leading U.N. peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Somalia; and France, which already has about 1,300 personnel and several frigates in the area. "I don't foresee any more than 5,000 French in the zone," said Cmdr. Jerome Erulin, a French military spokesman, cautioning that it was too early to determine his nation's role. Five thousand "would be the high end of the range," he said. Speculation on who might command a multinational force in southern Lebanon has centered on Turkey and France. A daunting tangle of potential complications threatens to bedevil the international effort even before it gets under way. Among the more striking examples is Germany. It has not ruled out contributing troops, but its leaders - mindful of the country's Nazi past - are anxious to avoid any scenario in which German soldiers could wind up in conflict with Israelis. There are plenty of other thorny issues. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said his country would stop its offensive only after the deployment of a robust international force - "an army with combat units" ready and willing to rein in Hezbollah. That raises the question of whether the Europeans and others are prepared for a campaign that could go beyond peacekeeping and firing weapons purely in self-defense to the potentially bloody business of engaging and disarming Hezbollah militants. And with Hezbollah mixed among civilians, that involves a very high risk that the force would cause civilian casualties. Some military analysts have raised the possibility that Hezbollah, if forced back by international troops, could simply lob its rockets over their heads and keep hitting targets in northern Israel. If Israel wanted to strike back by ground assault, it would presumably be up to the force to stop it. The United States says it plans to help train and equip the Lebanese army, which many hope would ultimately take over the border area. Britain has hinted it may offer technical assistance. But there are questions about whether the United States - busy training Iraqi security forces _ has enough instructors to train Lebanese troops, and whether that training would be possible somewhere inside Lebanon or best done in another country. Cyprus, which was a hub for last month's evacuations of foreigners from Lebanon, has been mentioned as a possible staging point for international troops. But Turkey, which does not recognize the island's Greek-led government, would be restricted to using Cyprus' northern, ethnically Turkish part. In much of the Muslim world, there is broad support for the idea of sending troops. Even Malaysia's largest opposition bloc, the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, contends the world's Muslims have a moral responsibility to help end the violence. "The mission is good because it can prevent a broader Middle East conflict," said Cholil Munawir, a supporter of Indonesia's Islamic Community Forum, which bitterly opposes Israel's campaign in Lebanon. But elsewhere, public resistance is already building, just as it did before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. In Germany, polls suggest two in three people oppose committing troops. "Nigerian soldiers should not be sent to a war that is none of our business," said Ahmed Mohammed, a local politician in Nigeria, which has not yet specified how many troops it's prepared to send. "We cannot continue to sacrifice the lives of our young men for the mistakes of others."