updated 9/20/2006 3:50:54 PM ET 2006-09-20T19:50:54

Israel’s army chief said Wednesday his nation’s troops were unlikely to withdraw from Lebanon by the weekend, as he initially predicted, because final details remained to be worked out with the U.N. peacekeepers taking their place.

The delay came even as the international peacekeeping mission grew to 5,000 troops, the number Israel said was needed before it could pull out of southern Lebanon. The force, known as UNIFIL, will eventually number 15,000.

Israel’s troop presence in southern Lebanon had been as large as 30,000 during the fighting against Hezbollah guerrillas. But the army has slowly withdrawn the soldiers since a cease-fire took effect on Aug. 14, and international peacekeepers and the Lebanese army began deploying in the area. There are currently about 9,000 Lebanese soldiers there.

The Israeli army will not say how many of its troops remain in Lebanon, but the number is believed to be several thousand concentrated in three pockets along the border. The full withdrawal of Israeli troops will remove a remaining point of friction and help bolster the cease-fire.

Home after Jewish New Year
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz told Israeli lawmakers Tuesday that he hoped to bring the last soldier home before the start of the Jewish New Year, which begins Friday evening.

But Wednesday, he said that timetable did not appear realistic because of ongoing talks with the U.N. peacekeepers.

“We very much hoped it would happen by Friday, but in the dialogue we have been holding with the United Nations and the Lebanese army, there are a few issues to be wrapped up,” he said.

“I hope it will take place in the next few days, but it looks likely to be after the holiday,” he said. The New Year holiday ends Sunday evening.

The fighting between Israel and Hezbollah began July 12 when the Lebanese guerrilla group crossed the border and attacked an army patrol, capturing two Israeli soldiers. The fighting ended after 34 days with more than 850 Lebanese and 150 Israelis killed.

UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Alain Pelligrini said in a statement that a meeting took place Tuesday between senior Israeli and Lebanese officers and top U.N. peacekeepers.

“The meeting was positive, we are making progress,” he said, adding the Israeli army withdrawal and the Lebanese army deployments were on track.

More countries contribute to force
Commitments to the international force continued to grow Wednesday, with German lawmakers approving the deployment of warships to Lebanon’s coast to stop arms shipments to Hezbollah.

Germany will send eight warships — its largest naval deployment since World War II — and lead the multinational naval force patrolling Lebanon’s coast.

Wary of its Nazi past and the Holocaust, Germany ruled out sending ground troops to southern Lebanon to ensure that German soldiers do not get caught up in any confrontation with Israeli forces.

Rebuffing concern about the deployment, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany’s history obligated it to help stabilize the region because Israel — as well as Lebanon — had given its approval for the naval mission.

That was “a signal of trust in Germany, in the country in whose name the destruction of the Jews and World War II began,” Merkel said. “We should take such a signal seriously.”

The German ships, which are to leave Thursday, are being accompanied by three from Denmark and are expected to take 10 to 14 days to reach the area. Greek, Italian and French warships are patrolling the Lebanese coast until they arrive.

Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands are also expected to send ships.

Overcoming initial objections
Also Wednesday, Malaysian officials said their country would contribute 360 members of the U.N. mission in Lebanon, after the United Nations approved the deployment.

Malaysia had previously offered to send as many as 1,000 troops, and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said it remains ready to dispatch more peacekeepers if asked to.

The deployment comes despite Israel’s initial objections to the involvement of countries without diplomatic relations with the Jewish state — including Malaysia and Indonesia. Israel later dropped objections to Indonesia’s participation, although it was unclear if Malaysia was acceptable to Israel.

Meanwhile, a group of reserve soldiers, angry at Israel’s conduct of the war, heckled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a speech to members of his Kadima Party.

“Olmert, resign!” one said. “Take responsibility?” yelled another.

Security guards escorted some of the protesters out of the hall, and Olmert brushed off their criticisms, saying most Israelis agreed with his positions.

Reserve soldiers, many of whom said they were not properly equipped or trained for the battle, have taken the lead in protesting the government’s war effort.

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