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In Lebanon, the UN and Hizbullah make unlikely bedfellows

Faced with a new threat from Sunni militants, UN peacekeepers turn to Hizbullah for protection.

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MCpl. Fabio Carlone says his small, lightly armored, Puma vehicle is just the right size for patrolling the narrow, potholed lanes of southern Lebanon.

The flaw, however, is that the vehicle provides little protection against the kind of car bomb that killed six of his United Nations colleagues last month. And Master Corporal Carlone says that weighs on his mind every time he and his Italian comrades go out on patrol along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was increased from 2,000 to 13,300 peacekeepers after the month-long war last summer between Israel and Hizbullah. The UN peacekeepers are led by elite European troops and are charged with helping the Lebanese Army ensure that the tense border remained calm.

But a year on, UNIFIL still finds itself under threat, not from the Shiite Hizbullah, but from suspected radical Sunni militants possibly inspired by Al Qaeda. And in a bizarre twist, some UNIFIL contingents are now seeking the cooperation of the powerful Hizbullah, which also views militant Sunnis as a threat, to help provide tacit security for the peacekeepers, Hizbullah and UNIFIL sources say.

Last month, six Spanish and Colombian soldiers serving with UNIFIL's Spanish battalion were killed when a car bomb exploded beside their armored vehicle, the deadliest attack in UNIFIL's 29-year history.

Last week, a UNIFIL jeep was damaged when a small bomb exploded nearby, confirming fears that last month's bombing was not a random act. In both attacks, radical Sunnis are the prime suspects.

"We are facing threats, but not threats about our ability to carry out our mission," says Maj. Gen. Claudio Graziano, UNIFIL's commander, at his headquarters in the southern coastal village of Naqoura. "We are cautious, we are soldiers. We know the risk can be minimized but not completely eradicated."

As Lebanon's political crisis intensified in the wake of the war last summer, UNIFIL began receiving increased intelligence warnings of potential attacks by Al Qaeda-inspired militants. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's deputy leader, twice referred to UNIFIL in video-taped messages, describing the peacekeepers as "international crusader forces."

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