Thursday, August 17, 2006

Israel Warns 'This War is Not Over Yet'

Tim Harper, Toronto Star:
An already fragile ceasefire in the Middle East now appears in greater danger of unravelling, threatened by Hezbollah's refusal to disarm and Israeli charges that Iran and Syria are already rearming its enemy.

"This war is not over yet," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters at the United Nations yesterday.

The Israeli chief of defence staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, also said Israeli troops would remain in southern Lebanon until a robust multinational force arrived, even if that took months. READ MORE

The Lebanese cabinet yesterday approved a plan to deploy its army to the south of the country starting today, a key point in the UN-brokered agreement, which ended 34 days of fighting, but there are no plans to use that army to try to disarm Hezbollah.

Officials of the Shiite militia told reporters in Lebanon yesterday that they had no intention of disarming but would melt into the population and not flaunt their weaponry, much as they had before.

They also said the Lebanese army had agreed not to diligently search for Hezbollah weapons caches.

"Just like in the past, Hezbollah had no visible military presence and there will not be any visible presence now," Sheik Nabil Kaouk said in Tyre yesterday.

The White House said the onus is on the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah, acknowledging that could take time.

But analysts reluctantly suggested a fresh outbreak of fighting could be at hand.

"If Israel couldn't disarm Hezbollah, I doubt the Lebanese government, even backed by an international force, could do it," said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"Ultimately, Hezbollah will be disarmed only when it is convinced it will be barred from Lebanese politics unless it disarms. That will take concerted international pressure, especially from the U.S."

In the short term, however, Phillips questioned whether there was actually a ceasefire agreement in place.

"It is extremely fragile and likely to be broken time and again," he said.

White House spokesperson Tony Snow said U.S. President George W. Bush expects the Lebanese government to eventually ensure the terrorist organization is disarmed.

"If Hezbollah decides to be peaceful, political, disarms, goes in, abides by UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, that's great. That's good news. That's not bad news. That is something devoutly to be wished," Snow said.

"But it is going to be up to Hezbollah to take those steps. And if it doesn't, then the business of disarming is going to have to proceed."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there will be no attempt to physically disarm Hezbollah and said there is a misconception about how a group can be disarmed.

"You have to have a plan, first of all, for the disarmament of a militia, and then the hope is that some people lay down their arms voluntarily," Rice said in an interview with USA Today.

If Hezbollah resists, she said, other nations will join with the U.S. and isolate the militia and an arms embargo will prevent it from rearming.

But four days after the ceasefire there was increasing criticism of its terms.

In Israel, Silvan Shalom, a Likud party member and former Israeli finance minister, said there were "big holes" in the ceasefire agreement, particularly Hezbollah's determination that it would not disarm.

"We did not succeed in disarming the Hezbollah," he said on Israeli radio. "We did not succeed in eliminating the threat of rockets.

"UNIFIL, which we refer to as an `army of pensioners' will also not be arriving here soon in full force."

France is expected to lead the multinational force and the UN hopes as many as 3,500 troops can reinforce a 2,000-strong UN contingent already on the ground within 10 to 15 days. Ultimately, their number will swell to 15,000, joined by a like number from Lebanon's army.

A Lebanese army in the same area as an armed Hezbollah is a potentially volatile mix which could cause some potential peacekeeping nations to think twice about sending troops.

Yesterday, French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said France is willing to lead the enlarged UN force until at least February. But he expressed concern the force's mandate was "fuzzy" and said the peacekeepers need to have sufficient resources and a clear mission.

The government ordered the army, which has been assembling north of the river, to "ensure respect" for the Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, and "apply existing laws with regard to any weapons outside the authority of the Lebanese state."

That provision does not require Hezbollah to give up its arms, but rather directs it to keep them off the streets. "There will be no authority or weapons other than those of the state," said Information Minister Ghazi Aridi.

The Israeli military said today it has begun its withdrawal, handing over some positions in south Lebanon to the UN force.

"The process will be carried out in stages and is conditional on the reinforcement of UNIFIL and the ability of the Lebanese army to take effective control of the area," an army statement said.

A Lebanese military convoy was streaming to south Lebanon through the town of Nabatiyeh today and were expected to start crossing the Litani River shortly, Reuters correspondent Yara Bayoumy said.

Hezbollah continued to court public support, vowing speedy clean-up, reconstruction and financial compensation to south Lebanon residents.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, described the group's resistance against Israel's military onslaught as a "victory" for Islam.

"Your unprecedented holy war and steadfastness are beyond the limits of my description. "It's a divine victory. It is a victory of Islam," Khamenei said in the message read by an announcer on Hezbollah's Al-Manar television.

Hezbollah is heavily financed and backed by Iran's Shiite Muslim theocracy.

"Your victory was a victory for Islam. With God's help you were able to prove that military superiority is not (measured) in the number (of soldiers), planes, warships and tanks.

"Rather, it depends on the power of faith and holy war," Khamenei said.

With files from the Star's wire services