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UN Lebanon force: future is shaky. Israel worries UN troops may pull out

The UN force that has served in chaotic south Lebanon for eight years seems more vulnerable than ever. The deteriorating status of UNIFIL, as the peacekeeping force is known, was underscored for reporters visiting the UN zone Wednesday: UNIFIL officers insisted that the journalists travel in armored personnel carriers. In the past, reporters toured the UN zone in open jeeps.

``We've become targets for attacks, which is something that we had not been,'' said a UNIFIL source.

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UNIFIL's increasingly precarious position could spell bad news for both Lebanon and Israel, even normally critical Israeli officials say. UNIFIL has served as a buffer between Israel and its avowed enemy Syria. It has also stopped and disarmed Palestinian and Shiite fighters bent on attacking Israel's self-proclaimed ``security zone,'' and has created pockets of relative stability for the battered Lebanese in the south.

The situation in south Lebanon has become increasingly tense in the past six weeks as both the French contingent of UNIFIL and the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia have come under unprecedented attack from radical Shiite Muslim guerrillas. The attacks spurred renewed calls by the UN for Israel to pull its remaining troops from south Lebanon and raised fears in Israel that this country may again find itself with thousands, rather than hundreds of troops deployed in Lebanon.

A UN Security Council resolution proposed by France and passed Tuesday seemed to start a clock ticking on UNIFIL's presence. The resolution called for the ``withdrawal of all armed forces not requested by the Lebanese government'' and the deployment of UNIFIL all the way to the border. It gave the UN secretary-general three weeks to report on implementation of the redeployment.

Israel has rejected the latest resolution and said it will not relinquish its security zone. There were reports over the weekend of a troop buildup on the Israeli side of the border, and rumors that Israel would launch a strike to ``clean out'' villages it believed were sympathetic to the radical Shiite Hizbullah (Party of God). But the attack never came.

On Wednesday Israel reaffirmed its commitment to patrol the security zone with the SLA, the mostly Christian militia that Israel finances and trains. Israel, an analyst says, is determined to keep its own troops' involvement to a minimum, but is equally determined to back the SLA. That commitment was brought home by an Israeli air strike Thursday on buildings near Sidon that the Israelis said belonged to the Al-Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

UNIFIL sources say they fear that, unless their redeployment to the border is allowed, France may decide to pull out its troops, which form the backbone of UNIFIL. If that happened, it is believed likely that all other nations contributing to UNIFIL would also pull out their troops.

Even the Israelis, who have long criticized UNIFIL as an ineffective force, are worried about the consequences of a UNIFIL pullout. Both Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin acknowledged such a move would further destabilize the south, where the more moderate, Syrian-backed Amal militia is struggling with the more radical, Iranian-backed Hizbullah for control. Israeli military analysts are worried by Hizbullah's growing strength. But one official in Mr. Peres's office said there is a consensus among military and political leaders here that Israel has no alternative but to maintain its security zone and back the SLA. Previous attempts to reach either formal or informal agreements with the Lebanese government, Amal, or the Syrians have failed.

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``We were just in the United States, and the prime minister just met with the secretary-general,'' the official said. ``Nobody suggested that there is any hope at this point of reaching even informal agreement on security with [Syria]. The feeling here now is that the Hizbullah upsurge is a passing fad that will diminish in a couple of months if we stand firm.''

The UNIFIL crisis began six weeks ago, when Lebanese Shiites attacked French positions after a French soldier shot and killed an Amal leader at a checkpoint. Since then, four French soldiers have been killed and 33 wounded. One Irish soldier was also killed. Last Thursday, Shiite guerrillas attacked four SLA positions in the security zone, and temoprarily overran two of them.

UNIFIL is trying to cope with the attacks on the French by pulling the French battalion out of its forward positions and is devoting millions of dollars to strengthen its battalions' defenses. Israel's approach, in contrast, has been to step up warnings of reprisals for attacks on the SLA and rockets into Israel.

What remains to be seen is whether the attacks against the French are aimed solely at them, or mark the beginning of a wider attack by Shiite extremists against UNIFIL. The UNIFIL source noted that Shiite leaders in Iran and Beirut last summer declared UNIFIL to be an agent of imperialism, a tool serving to block attacks against Israel. Whether that argument has taken hold with the local, predominantly Shiite population of south Lebanon is unclear, the source said.

``We are here at the request of the Lebanese government,'' the source said. ``We have reason to believe that most of the Lebanese want us to stay and to continue our work.'' If, in the weeks to come, the attacks against UNIFIL continue, the source said, ``then it will be difficult to carry on. We cannot start behaving as an occupying force. If the Lebanese want us out, we cannot stay -- that is obvious.''

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