PARIS – President Jacques Chirac announced Thursday that France will send 2,000 soldiers to southern Lebanon and hopes to retain command of the U.N. peacekeeping force, as a top European Union official said international troops could start deploying within days.
The offer by France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler and key architect of a U.N. Security Council resolution to increase the force's size, was a major step toward expanding it more than a week after a cease-fire took hold.
It also represented a turnaround for Paris, which drew criticism last week after announcing it would only double its current 200-troop contingent. France's role as mission commander then came under pressure, with Italy expressing a willingness to take the lead role and pledging up to 3,000 troops.
Dominique Moisi, an analyst with France's Institute for International Relations, said France — in announcing a larger force — had felt the "international and national outrage at the contradiction between the French promises and what the French delivered."
"At some point, the French realized they had gone too far by doing too little," he said. "It is a face-saving gesture."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush welcomed the decision by the French and said an international force should be "deployed urgently."
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency, said he wants to see the first reinforcements arrive within a week if possible.
In a televised address broadcast across Europe and the Mideast, Chirac said he made the decision after receiving guarantees allowing the force "free movement and its ability to act when faced with a possible hostile situation."
"We obtained the necessary clarifications on the chain of command, which must be simple, coherent and reactive," Chirac said, adding that he will evaluate the size of the French contingent over the next six months as events progress. "I am convinced today that French soldiers can be deployed effectively."
Chirac sought to claim some credit for drawing in other countries, saying that he had "spoken with several of my counterparts to persuade them to take their full part."
France, along with the United States, helped craft the U.N. Security Council resolution that called for the expansion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, from the current 2,000 troops to 15,000. They are to join an equal number of Lebanese troops in preserving the shaky cease-fire by making sure Hezbollah does not fire any more rockets or carry out more raids into Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will decide who leads the force, though France's current command isn't set to expire until February.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said in a statement that Chirac's decision will "serve Lebanon and strengthen stability, and helps Lebanon to regain its lands through the implementation of Israeli withdrawal, and helps the state of Lebanon to spread its authority on its territories in southern Lebanon."
Under the U.N. resolution, the Israelis are to withdraw "in tandem" with the arrival of the enhanced international force.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged the international community to act as quickly as possible to deploy the force. Sporadic violence has marked the cease-fire that took hold Aug. 14 and ended 34 days of ferocious fighting, but the truce has thus far held.
"The extremists who want to inflame the region are watching us, and this will test the strength and determination of the international community," Livni said following a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema.
A separate controversy has developed over whether the international force will patrol the Lebanon-Syria border.
Israel insists a U.N. force take up positions along the border to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah, while Syria says such a move would be a "hostile" act.
Saniora's Cabinet on Thursday affirmed its determination to uphold the cease-fire and called on the international community to send troops to free up the Lebanese army to patrol the country's borders. It did not directly address the issue of U.N. troops on the Syrian border.
The U.S. warned Syria to abide by a U.N. arms embargo meant to stop Hezbollah from resupplying after its monthlong war with Israel. It dismissed Syrian objections to international peacekeepers as preposterous.
"All countries must obey the arms embargo" under the U.N. Security Council resolution that set a cease-fire this month, said State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos. "It is a singular duty for Syria, as the one country apart from Israel that borders Lebanon, to do so."
France had long pressed for a clearer mandate for the beefed-up force, and led a flurry of diplomatic activity with European and other nations to help clarify the force's rules of engagement.
"Regarding the rules of engagement, they must guarantee the force's free movement and its ability to act when faced with a possible hostile situation," Chirac said.
EU foreign ministers were scheduled to meet Friday in Brussels to discuss the force. Pressure on the Europeans has grown because Israel has rejected offers of participation from Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia — predominantly Muslim countries that do not recognize the Jewish state.
The United Nations was expected to hold a formal meeting Monday for countries that have expressed interest in contributing troops to Lebanon, a U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because there has been no official announcement.
Annan was expected to attend the EU foreign ministers meeting Friday in Brussels. Early next week, he heads to Lebanon and then Israel to meet with senior officials and encourage full implementation of the U.N. resolution adopted on Aug. 11 with the aim of promoting lasting peace between Israel and Lebanon.
The world body is hoping to nail down concrete numbers at the meeting Monday so the deployment can begin quickly, the U.N. official said.
Other nations considering contributions to the force include Spain, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and Belgium. Turkey, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand and China also are considering participating in the U.N. mission.