Saturday, July 29, 2006

Hezbollah Politicians Back Peace Package

Hezbollah politicians, while expressing reservations, have joined their critics in the government in agreeing to a peace package that includes strengthening an international force in south Lebanon and disarming the guerrillas, the government said.

The agreement - reached after a heated six-hour Cabinet meeting - was the first time that Hezbollah has signed onto a proposal for ending the crisis that includes the deploying of international forces.

The package falls short of American and Israeli demands in that it calls for an immediate cease-fire before working out details of a force and includes other conditions.But European Union officials said Friday the proposals form a basis for an agreement, increasing the pressure on the United States to call for a cease-fire.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday they too want an international force dispatched quickly to the Mideast but said any plan to end the fighting - to have a lasting effect - must address long-running regional disputes.

"This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East," Bush said after his meeting with Blair in Washington. "Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region."

By signing onto the peace proposals, Hezbollah gave Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora a boost in future negotiations.

Going into Thursday night's Cabinet session, Hezbollah's two ministers expressed deep reservations about the force and its mandate, fearing it could turn against their guerrillas.

"Will the international force be a deterrent one and used against who?" officials who attended the Cabinet meeting said in summing up Hezbollah cabinet ministers concerns. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the debate.

But afterward, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi announced that the package had been agreed on by consensus in a rare show of unity by a divided administration.

While all sides seemed to be looking for a way to stop the fighting, details of plans taking shape on all sides were still fuzzy. And it was not at all certain Hezbollah would really follow through on the Lebanese government plan that would effectively abolish the militants' military wing. It may have signed on to the deal convinced that Israel would reject it.

But the agreement presents Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with a package she might find hard to ignore when she returns to the region.The plan approved by the Cabinet was an outline that Saniora presented at an international conference in Rome on Wednesday.

It starts out with an immediate cease-fire. Following that would come:

the release of Lebanese and Israeli prisoners;

Israeli withdrawal behind the border;

the return of Lebanese displaced by the fighting.

moves to resolve the status of Chebaa Farms, a small piece of land held by Israel and claimed by Lebanon.

The proposal calls for the U.N. Security Council to commit to putting the area under U.N. control until a final demarcation of the border.

the provision by Israel of maps of minefields laid during its 18-year occupation of the south.

"the spreading of Lebanese government authority over the entire country," meaning the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south, with the strengthening and increasing of the small, lightly armed U.N. peacekeeping force currently there.



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