The Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has confirmed that Italy is prepared to command the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
He told reporters at the Tuscan seaside resort where he is on holiday that, in the course of a long phone conversation with the UN secretary general Kofi Annan, he had said that Italy was willing to lead the force, an idea that the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had raised with Mr Prodi at the weekend.
But he also endorsed the proposal made by the US President George Bush yesterday that a new UN resolution on Lebanon was needed. "This is a complicated mission and it is right to be prudent," he said.
The important thing, he added, was to have "a precise mandate with precise terms and a very clearly defined alliance".
Mr Prodi's commitment came after France had stunned its European allies by agreeing to provide only 200 extra troops for the UN mission, of which it was the joint architect. It had been expected to provide between 2,500 and 4,000.
Addressing the vacuum at the heart of the mission, Mr Bush told a press conference: "The international community must now designate the leadership of this new international force and give it robust rules of engagement.
"The need is urgent," he added, urging the force to be deployed "as quickly as possible to keep the peace". He said he hoped France would improve on its offer of soldiers.
European diplomats are due to meet in Brussels tomorrow to discuss the numbers of troops the 25 member-nations will provide for the expanded UN force. Italy's centre-left government has been talking up the mission for weeks, offering to send as many as 3,000 troops, more than any other nation. The Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema has travelled to Beirut and Cairo for talks, and Mr Prodi has the broad support of parliament, with only the Northern League balking on account of the cost.
The mission has been promoted as an important opportunity for Italy to demonstrate its commitment to peace and security in the Middle East.
Carlo Cabigiosu, the Italian general who was commander of the multinational mission in Kosovo, said that Italy's advantages included "a long tradition of friendship with the Arabic nations, and strong attention to Israel and its legitimate aspirations for recognition and peace in its neighbourhood", which could give Italy's leadership legitimacy on both sides. And in its dealings with Hizbollah, he went on, Italy "has a good card to play: our good relations with Iran".
Italy was marginalised within Europe during the Silvio Berlusconi years, partly due to its new-found proximity to Washington. Taking a leading role in Lebanon is seen as one way for Italy to claw back respect in Europe's councils.
But France's sudden loss of enthusiasm for the Lebanon mission has had its effect even in Rome. "Chirac will send a few generals, Germany a launch or two, while we have to send troops dressed as kamikazes in the Italian flag," commented Francesco Storace, of the post-Fascist National Alliance.
Within Mr Prodi's government, too, voices urging caution are raised. Emma Bonino, the former EU commissioner and now Minister for Commerce and European Politics, has warned Mr Prodi not to forget the disastrous UN mission to Bosnia, when Dutch peacekeepers ended up as onlookers to the massacre at Srebrenica.
Although Italy's willingness for action is beyond doubt it has 28 missions in 19 countries, including Afghanistan and Sudan it has low public tolerance for casualties among its peace-keepers, as was demonstrated by the public shock that followed the killing of Italian soldiers in Iraq.
Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia are among the Islamic nations that have offered to send troops, but Mr Olmert has said he opposes the participation in the force of countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations which includes these three.Reuse content