Spanish, Italian, French FMs Visit UNIFIL, Pledge Support for Troops

Spanish FM: UN force is working to stabilize situation in South Lebanon; Hezbollah slams U.S. call for 'partnership' with Lebanon army.

The foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain - on a symbolic visit to southern Lebanon - pledged continued support for UN peacekeepers whose mandate is to oversee a truce along the Lebanese-Israeli border but who are increasingly threatened by al-Qaida-inspired militants and political instability in Beirut.

The visit by Bernard Kouchner of France, Massimo D'Alema of Italy and Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain comes at a difficult political time for Lebanon. The three ministers are hoping to help mediate among the feuding Lebanese factions because the deep political crisis in Beirut could have serious implications on the UN mission in southern Lebanon.

Already, the UN peacekeeping force of 13,530 from some 28 countries have come under attack in southern Lebanon. In June, a car bombing killed six peacekeepers from the Spanish contingent. Other bombings recently have been thwarted by authorities.

No group has claimed responsibility for the June attack or another one that followed in July. But in a July videotape, Al-Qaida's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri blessed the first attack, fueling speculation that it was carried out by Al-Qaida-linked militants.

Further political instability in Beirut and resulting deterioration of security could reflect negatively on the peacekeeping force's ability to implement its mission of securing the border.

The three top diplomats flew by UN helicopter from Beirut to the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, in the fishing border town of Naqoura on the Mediterranean Sea for a briefing from Force Commander Maj. Gen. Claudio Graziano of Italy.

The ministers later flew to the bases of their respective troop contingents serving with UNIFIL.

In statements at Naquora, the Italian foreign minister said it was the first time that the three foreign ministers of the main Euro-Mediterranean countries, who are the main contributors to UNIFIL, were together in Lebanon.

"I want to stress how important is this message of commitment, engagement and unity. Our presence here is a testimony of our support ... and deep appreciation," D'Alema said.

Kouchner said the troika's visit to UNIFIL was to reinforce our support to the international community forces, and he pledged continued support.

"We are strongly determined to follow till the end. The end is what? Peace, unity, sovereignty of Lebanon and certainly also implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1701," the French foreign minister said.

Moratinos said the three "came to salute our troops, to salute UNIFIL, this UN force that is working to stabilize the situation."

The reinforced UNIFIL deployed after the Second Lebanon War last summer between Israel and Hezbollah, a 34-day conflict that killed up to 1,200 Lebanese, and some 160 Israelis.

Under UN resolution 1701, it assists about 15,000 Lebanese troops maintain a weapons-free zone along the border.

Hezbollah slams U.S. call for 'partnership' with Lebanon armyHezbollah on Friday denounced a senior Pentagon official's call for a U.S. strategic partnership with Lebanon's army, saying American attempts to boost military ties were a ploy for domination and could turn the country into another Iraq.

Washington has dramatically increased military aid to Lebanon's pro-Western government over the past year. On Thursday, Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, said the U.S. wants to make military ties even closer, with a strategic partnership to strengthen the country's forces.

Edelman said in an interview with Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television that the building up of the military would mean the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah would have no excuse to bear arms.

He comments came on the same day that a Lebanese newspaper reported that Washington is proposing a treaty with Lebanon that would make it a strategic partner and lead to the creation of American bases.

The Lebanese government and the U.S. ambassador in Beirut denied the report in the opposition-leaning As-Safir newspaper, and Edelman made no mention of bases in his comments.

The comments and the newspaper report brought quick condemnation from Hezbollah, which is an ally of Syria and Iran and leads Lebanon's political opposition to the anti-Syrian government. The opposition, which is locked in a power struggle with the government, already accuses Prime Minister Fuad Siniora of being too close to the United States.

In a statement Friday, Hezbollah said the "American efforts were part of a comprehensive plan to link Lebanon with the American project for the region ... under deceitful banners such as strategic partnership," it said.

Hezbollah, which Washington accuses of being a terrorist organization, accused the United States of interference in Lebanese affairs, saying the American plans and the dangers it encompass could turn the country into another Iraq.

It did not elaborate. Some in Lebanon have expressed fears that a foreign military presence could attract al-Qaida and other militants, as has happened in Iraq.

Syria, meanwhile, accused the United States of threatening Lebanon's stability with its backing of the government in the country's political turmoil. In a letter sent to the United Nations on Thursday, it said U.S. interference has so far deepened divisions by clearly and openly siding with one Lebanese side after the other.

The United States - and anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon - accuse Damascus of fueling Lebanon's instability with its backing of Hezbollah, and say Syria is trying to restore the political domination it held over Lebanon for nearly 30 years until 2005.

The opposition, in turn, accuses Siniora's government - which came to power after the end of Syrian rule - of putting Lebanon in the U.S. camp. The opposition has tried for months to remove his government and the two sides are in a dangerous deadlock over the choice of the country's next president.

After last year's war between Hezbollah and Israel, the United States sharply increased its military assistance to Lebanon to $270 million in 2007 - more than five times the amount provided a year ago - in a show of support to Siniora.

The military in Lebanon has long been weak, numbering 56,000 personnel, with about 220 battle tanks, no effective air power and no air defense system. Hezbollah guerrillas are widely considered a stronger, more experienced force, and they were able to fight Lebanon's military to a standstill last year.

Since the battle with Israel, Lebanese forces and UN peacekeepers have deployed in the south - Hezbollah's stronghold - in part with a mandate to prevent new arms flows to the guerrillas. But they have not taken steps to disarm Hezbollah.

Asked whether helping the Lebanese army aimed at eventually taking on Hezbollah, Edelman said that as the army strengthens its capabilities there will be less excuse for other armed groups to continue to bear arms.