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Lebanon Stymies UN-backed IDF Pullout
Under pressure from its Syrian taskmasters, Lebanon ratcheted up old threats and raised new obstacles on Wednesday to block Israel's momentum for an orderly IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon under United Nations supervision. Setting some rather novel and stringent preconditions for its cooperation, Lebanon wants the UN to first disarm Palestinians living in refugee camps and guarantee Israel will respect Lebanon's territorial sovereignty - including its airspace.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak received a face-saving commitment from Secretary General Kofi Annan that the UN would use its "mandate" under Security Council resolution 425 to coordinate plans with Israel for ending its costly and unpopular presence in south Lebanon by July. Meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy in Geneva, Annan voiced a preference for the option of a beefed-up UNIFIL to fill the "vacuum" created in the wake of Israel's pullout, so that no side would have a pretext to bring about "any deterioration of the situation."

The official Lebanese reaction on Wednesday came in the form of a letter to Annan from Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, which made it clear that Beirut would not coordinate with the UN over a withdrawal before certain concerns are addressed. Although Lebanon has consistently badgered Israel for years to immediately and unconditionally evacuate its 10-mile wide security zone in the south pursuant to resolution 425, it now is obstructing a clean IDF get-away under UN cover.

The Lahoud letter warned that continual Palestinian attacks are a real possibility if Israel withdraws from Lebanon without a wider peace agreement, and posed a series of questions about UN policy regarding UNIFIL. "If Palestinian groups tried to launch cross-border attacks in the framework of their right to return home, do you think that the international forces will be able to prevent daily little wars on the borders?" the letter asked. "Does the United Nations accept a Lebanese condition to disarm Palestinians or participate in disarming them before deploying international troops on its borders?"

Lahoud also asked whether UNIFIL would prevent Israel from violating Lebanese sovereign airspace and its territorial waters, a move meant to deprive Israel of IAF air strikes - its most effective deterrence against cross-border attacks. In addition, he queried Annan on Lebanon's demand for full compensation for damage it has sustained since resolution 425 was passed in 1978.

Lahoud presented his letter listing eight such questions to special UN Mideast envoy Terje Roed Larsen (a key Norwegian player in the PLO's breakthrough at Oslo), and added he needed answers before discussing any further issues. Lahoud also also indicated Lebanon would not move quickly to deploy its own forces near the border and take responsibility for security there.

As part of the terms ending the 15-year Lebanese civil war, Beirut supposedly disarmed all the various militias operating in the country - except the Islamic groups Hizb'Allah, which was allowed to continue its "armed resistance to Israeli occupation" in the south. While some radical Palestinian factions may still have small arms, the real threat comes from pro-Syrian Palestinian elements which Damascus would now mobilize as yet another proxy against Israel.

Annan spoke by phone with Lahoud on Thursday and was said to be studying the Lebanese president's requests. But a UN source acknowledged Lahoud's letter as a ruse, saying Israel was in the middle of "a campaign to sell Resolution 425, and the Syrians will do everything to prevent this." The source said the Lebanese were imposing "impossible conditions."

Syria indeed echoed the Lebanese stance, saying Israel will still be regarded as an occupying force because of incursions into Lebanese territorial waters and air space. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara told the LONDON TIMES that Israel's planned unilateral pull-out from Lebanon would not bring stability unless it also made peace with Damascus.

To reinforce its threats, top Syrian officials met with radical Palestinian terrorist chief George Habash on Wednesday and renewed support for the Palestinian struggle. In a similar move, a pro-Syrian PLO commander in a large refugee camp in southern Lebanon said yesterday that Israel would not enjoy peaceful borders if it withdrew. "There will be no peace, no security and no stability to the occupier... No army in the world will guarantee the security of this occupier, even the Blue Berets," he asserted.

In turn, PLO leader Yasser Arafat today again strongly rebuked Syria's attempts to hijack the refugee issue and stir up trouble in the camps in Lebanon, where some 370,000 Palestinians live.

Israel's deputy Defense Minister, Ephraim Sneh, led the Israeli reaction to the latest Lebanese blocking maneuver, charging Syria was trying to sabotage Israel's exit strategy. On Thursday, Sneh rejected the new conditions set by Lebanon and warned Syria that cross-border fighting could intensify if it tries to torpedo attempts to negotiate the terms of an Israeli pullback.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has tried to downplay the potential for a major escalation along the border, the Hebrew-daily MA'ARIV published a prominent article on Thursday revealing that a majority of the IDF General Staff now opposes the government decision to redeploy by July without a peace deal. The paper quoted unidentified senior officers as saying Barak is leading the IDF and the country into a trap in "an unprecedented gamble with the lives of civilians." They argue that Iran would order Hizb'Allah to attack Israeli border towns after the withdrawal.

Scores of residents near the border seemed to agree, as they staged a large protest against the lack of security preparations for the IDF redeployment, blocking the main northern border road for an hour.

Meanwhile, AN-NAHAR stepped up its editorial campaign yesterday against the reluctance of the Beirut government to take responsibility for the south after the IDF leaves, which would create a "security vacuum [that] could be exploited by those harmed by the withdrawal and seeking to commit acts of sabotage that could sow ethnic strife."

The editorial said: "We say with all sincerity that the matter of [South Lebanese Army commander Antoine] Lahad's forces should be dealt with by the state, far from a media or political circus and far from the extremists. The victory in south Lebanon is - and should be - a victory of all Lebanese over Israel, and not one Lebanese side over another."

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