For now, U.N. peacekeepers relish calm in south Lebanon

Tuesday, October 17th 2006, 6:44 am
By: News On 6

NAQOURA, Lebanon (AP) _ The Italian soldier newly assigned to patrol south Lebanon was confident he was welcome in one of the world's tensest regions.

``I think they love us here,'' he told Arab television recently. ``After all, we are world champions in soccer.''

But peacekeepers deployed from 10 nations will need more than athletic skills and high spirits to achieve success in south Lebanon, where support is strong for Hezbollah guerrillas who fought Israel in a devastating war last summer.

For now, an almost carefree attitude prevails. In the coastal village of Naqoura, French soldiers casually shop outside the U.N. force's main base without combat helmets or body armor. At a hotel 30 miles northeast, their Spanish comrades walk into the bar, offer an Arabic greeting and order sodas.

But this ``honeymoon'' could be menacingly similar to the optimism that prevailed in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster.

Then, U.S. troops routinely stopped for ice cream, chatted with youths on street corners and allowed motorists to drive alongside their convoys.

Weeks later, an anti-U.S. insurgency poisoned the atmosphere and the Americans had to abandon foot patrols in most areas and erect high blast barriers around bases.

South Lebanon has similar seeds of trouble, but any discontent has mostly provoked bravado.

Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the peacekeeping force, said it was clear not everyone in south Lebanon was thrilled about the expanded U.N. presence, expected to grow to 15,000 troops. More of than half have been deployed.

``Generally, the reception has been quite friendly,'' Ivanko said. ``Clearly, not everyone is extremely happy that we are in the south, but that's their choice.''

The force, known as UNIFIL, is in south Lebanon under a U.N. cease-fire that halted the 34-day war. Its mandate is to help the Lebanese army establish a buffer zone free of unauthorized weapons from the Israeli border to the Litani River.

This places peacekeepers at odds with a population that mostly supports Hezbollah, which refuses to give up its arms and insists only its fighters can defend Lebanon against Israel.

As a rule, Christians in south Lebanon have little sympathy for the Shiite guerrillas, whose July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers provoked the fighting that killed more than 850 Lebanese and 160 Israelis. The region's Druse and Sunni Muslims are split into pro- and anti-Hezbollah factions, while support for the guerrillas is almost universal among Shiites.

Not surprisingly, resentment of UNIFIL comes mainly from the Shiites. Many Hezbollah supporters believe the U.N. force is designed to protect Israel rather than the people of south Lebanon.

``To come in here is easy, to leave will be difficult,'' said Sami Jameel Attiyah, 44, of the village of Qana. ``If they are here to protect the people that will be fine. But there will be problems if they try and interfere in our affairs.''

Although Hezbollah leaders have welcomed the strengthened U.N. force, there has been a degree of suspicion about its intentions.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has claimed that some UNIFIL members might be spying on his guerrillas, and has warned the force against becoming involved in internal Lebanese affairs.

Nasrallah's refusal to surrender weapons is popular among the Shiites of south Lebanon, while most of the region's small Sunni and Christian communities want the fighters disarmed.

Mohammed Harb, who runs a legal advisory office in Nabatiyeh, warned southern Lebanese would fight U.N. peacekeepers if they felt the force was becoming a threat.

``We in the south want our weapons to stay and grow,'' he said.

But others have not been shy about welcoming the troops. When Spanish peacekeepers landed on a beach in Tyre last month, young Lebanese women in bikinis greeted them.

Others hope for economic gain. At Naquora, a mainly Shiite village that flies yellow Hezbollah flags and Nasrallah portraits, Spanish soldiers visit the restaurant run by Alain El-Ashi's Maronite Christian parents.

``The food on the base is good, but it's the same every day,'' said the teenager. ``So, they come here to eat something different.''