Israeli PM Olmert Announces War Inquiry

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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced an inquiry Monday into the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, hoping to dispel criticism that the army and government bungled the campaign but falling short of demands for an independent probe with the authority to dismiss top officials.

The decision was likely to further enrage critics who say that Olmert and other top officials should be the focus of the investigation, not overseeing it.

"We don't have the luxury to invest years examining the past. What we need is a businesslike, professional investigation that gets to the root of the problem quickly," Olmert said in a speech in the northern city of Haifa, where he spoke to leaders of communities damaged by Hezbollah rockets.

He also said he did not want to put the army in a position of "self-flagellation."

The Israeli public has been clamoring for a serious investigation into the 34-day war, launched July 12 hours after Hezbollah guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others in a cross-border raid.

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The government has been criticized for accepting a U.N.-brokered cease-fire without crushing Hezbollah or winning the release of the two captives.

Soldiers returning from the fighting in Lebanon have complained about confused battle plans, poor training and shortages of food, water and equipment. The deaths of 33 soldiers in a last-minute ground offensive just before a truce took hold — along with news that the army chief sold his stock portfolio in the early hours of the fighting — have only deepened the public outrage.

In his speech, Olmert defended the war, saying Israel inflicted heavy damage on Hezbollah. He described the cease-fire, which calls for a beefed-up international force to help police the border, as a major diplomatic success.

He also said the ground offensive, launched just as the cease-fire agreement was taking form, was "unavoidable," despite the heavy Israeli casualties. He said the offensive put pressure on the United Nations to approve the cease-fire.

But Olmert conceded "not everything is good." He said Hezbollah's arsenal of short-range Katyusha rockets remains intact and the two soldiers remain in Hezbollah hands.

"The government of Israel and I, at its head, will spare no effort to get them and bring them home," he said.

The investigatory commission will be headed by Nahum Admoni, who headed Israel's Mossad spy agency during the 1980s. Legal experts and former military men will also be on the panel, Olmert said.

Olmert said the commission will be charged with "examining the performance of the government, its management and decision-making and everything it sees fit. The activity of the government is not exempt from examination and professional criticism."

The committee apparently will work alongside a second investigation, appointed by Defense Minister Amir Peretz, to look into the military's handling of the war. That committee, headed by a former army chief and comprised of ex-military men, has been criticized as toothless. It suspended work after just one meeting, waiting for guidance from Olmert.

Critics have been demanding a full-blown state inquiry, with the authority to fire officials. Israel has carried out such inquiries after past crises, including the 1982 war in Lebanon. That probe led to the dismissal of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.

Soldiers returning from Lebanon and parents of those killed in battle have been among the most vocal critics. Hundreds of reservists have signed a petition calling on Olmert, Peretz and others to step down, and a small group of reservists has launched an open-ended protest outside Olmert's office in Jerusalem, demanding his resignation.

Lior Dimanez, one of the leaders of the reservists' protest movement, said the new investigation was not sufficient. "It's unthinkable that those to be questioned will appoint the interrogators," he told Israel TV. "It's simply a continuation of the spin, the spin that started with the war and is continuing now."