Israel must respect the cease-fire in Lebanon if Italy is to send troops to Lebanon as a major part of the peace force, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said in an interview published on Tuesday.

"From Israel, we expect a renewed commitment, and this time really binding, to respect the cease-fire," D'Alema was quoted as saying by the Rome daily La Repubblica. "It is right to insist that the Hezbollah put down their arms, but we cannot send our soldiers into Lebanon if the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) continues to shoot."

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D'Alema is expected to press that appeal on Thursday when he meets in Rome with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a day after she holds meetings in Paris.

Italy appears to be on the verge of taking on a major role in the peace mission, aimed at keeping fighting from breaking out again after weeks of widening warfare between Israel and the guerrillas that claimed civilian lives in both Lebanon and Israel.

On Monday, Italian Premier Romano Prodi said he told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Italy is willing to command a U.N. force in Lebanon.

Prodi, D'Alema and Italian military officials have said Italy could send as many as 3,000 soldiers, by far the largest offer of any prospective participant in the beefed-up UNIFIL force.

In the interview, D'Alema pitched for more European participation, although he played down French reluctance to send more than a few hundred troops.

"There will be the Spanish, who are giving us a big hand even from the political point of view," said D'Alema. "There will be countries from the north, from Belgium and the Netherlands, that are true armies and certainly not Swiss Guards," the minister was quoted as saying. He also noted Germany's commitment to offer funds and equipment and specialists.

"And in the end, I think that even the French will be present in a bigger way," D'Alema predicted. "And in any case, even if France doesn't change its mind, we will go ahead any way," he was quoted as saying.

"In the end, our troops, between 2,000 and 3,000, will be a third of the total sent by Europe. You can say anything except that Italy is alone," the minister said.

Prodi said on Monday that Annan would make the decision about who would lead the force after discussions with leaders of countries interested in joining the mission.

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