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New stature for Lebanese military?

Under a new cease-fire with Israel, Lebanese soldiers are taking control of southern Lebanon.

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Work continued through the night, lit only by the beams of headlights and a single construction light, to replace a bridge collapsed by an Israeli air strike, across the Litani river.

But when dawn broke Thursday over the green waters, those Lebanese Army engineers withdrew, so that a convoy of trucks packed with hundreds of soldiers could begin reinforcing a cease-fire, and deploying across south Lebanon for the first time in some 40 years.

"Go, go, go!" shouted one officer, directing traffic as vehicles flying Lebanese flags crossed the metal span one at a time.

With a quiet confidence, despite wearing paint-chipped metal hats for helmets, in some cases, and other aging gear – these soldiers hope to turn a symbolic moment into a historic one.

This vanguard force of 2,000 is to help solidify the cease-fire after a five-week war, and guarantee that the Israeli forces withdraw from Lebanon and that Hizbullah fighters shift their weapons north of the Litani, or keep them out of sight.

"This war is finished," says a United Nations official. "When you have the political will [on both sides], it takes only one man to guard the border – it is enough."

But no force was strong enough to prevent the Israeli bombardment that pulverized scores of Lebanese villages, thousands of homes, and swaths of Beirut; nor the nearly 4,000 rockets fired by Hizbullah into northern Israel. While both sides have reasons to stop – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his top brass are fighting for their political lives to justify their actions, and Hizbullah leaders need to finally ease the pain for 900,000 affected Shiite civilians – lasting peace is uncertain.

The UN Security Council is still determining the new robust rules under which an expanded UN force – from 2,000 to 15,000 international troops in the coming weeks – will work alongside the 15,000 Lebanese Army soldiers now beginning to deploy.


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