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Israeli soldiers want probe of Lebanon fighting

Hundreds of Israeli reservists pushed Monday for an investigation of how the government and army handled 34 days of fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas, saying they were rushed into battle without enough food, water and equipment.
Israel's Prime Minister Olmert inspects a damaged classroom in Kiryat Shmona
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday inspects a classroom in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket prior to the cease-fire.Pool / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hundreds of Israeli reservists pushed Monday for an investigation of how the government and army handled 34 days of fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas, saying they were rushed into battle without enough food, water and equipment.

President Bush, meanwhile, urged the world to move quickly in deploying an international military force in southern Lebanon to police the cease-fire. “The need is urgent,” he said.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi said Monday he had told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Italy is willing to command the U.N. force in Lebanon, news agencies reported.

Underscoring the fragility of the week-old truce, Israeli troops shot two Hezbollah guerrillas Monday during a clash in southern Lebanon, the army said.

The army said the soldiers opened fire after guerrillas approached the force in a “threatening manner.” It identified hitting two of the three militants in the group. There was no word on the condition of the men.

Complaining about indecisive leadership, hundreds of Israeli reservists signed a petition calling for an official commission of inquiry. They wrote that they were ready to risk their lives in the defense of Israel, “but there was one thing we are not willing to accept — indecisiveness.”

In a further sign of anger over handling of the war, a group of parents of fallen soldiers called for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation, saying that the government’s objectives had not been achieved and their sons had died for nothing.

Olmert defended his centrist coalition, saying it had been in power for only two months when the war broke out.

“We don’t have a lot of time to talk about what happened. We have to talk about what will happen,” Olmert told reporters Monday during a tour of Kiryat Shemona, a town that suffered some of the heaviest Hezbollah rocket fire.

Olmert rules out Syria peace talks
He said he was willing to consider an investigation, but did not make clear what kind. He warned that too much second-guessing could harm the army’s morale.

Should Israel “put them (soldiers) in front of commissions of inquiry each and every day, so they won’t be able to properly assess the next conflict, because they will be afraid we shall come complaining to them?” he asked.

Olmert also ruled out peace talks with Syria as long as it supports “terror organizations,” calling the country a “committed, aggressive member of the axis of evil.”

Earlier Monday, a top government official suggested it was time to resume talks with Syria despite its support for Hezbollah.

With concern mounting over the fragile truce, Israel sent warplanes over the coastal city of Tripoli, some 35 miles north of Beirut, and over Baalbek, scene of an Israeli commando raid two days ago which Israel said was to disrupt weapons shipments for Hezbollah from Syria.

Lebanon considers overflights a violation of the U.N. resolution that ended 34 days of fighting last week.

Lebanon deploys 15,000
As part of the cease-fire agreement, Lebanon has begun deploying 15,000 soldiers to the south, putting a government force in the region for the first time in four decades. They are to be joined by an equal force of international peacekeepers, but wrangling among countries expected to send troops has so far delayed assembly of the force.

The reluctance of European countries to commit substantial numbers of troops has raised doubts about whether the truce can hold.

The United States is planning to introduce a new U.N. resolution on disarming Hezbollah in southern Lebanon but U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Monday this should not hold up the quick deployment of U.N. peacekeepers.

France, which commands the existing force U.N. force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, had been expected to make a significant new contribution that would form the backbone of the expanded force. But President Jacques Chirac disappointed the U.N. and other countries last week by merely doubling France’s contingent of 200 soldiers.

Olmert further complicated matters by saying Sunday that countries which don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel should not be permitted to contribute troops to the U.N. force. That would eliminate Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh — among the only countries to have offered front-line troops.

U.S. pledges $230 million more
In Washington, Bush opened a news conference by announcing the U.S. was pledging an additional $230 million to help Lebanese rebuild, then urged faster movement on beefing up the U.N. force.

“The international community must now designate the leadership of this new international force, give it robust rules of engagement and deploy it as quickly as possible to secure the peace,” he said.

He said the U.N. force would help keep Hezbollah from acting as a “state within a state.”

Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr said Sunday he was confident Hezbollah would hold its fire but warned Syrian-backed Palestinian militants against rocket attacks, which might draw Israeli retaliation and re-ignite full-scale fighting.

“We consider that when the resistance (Hezbollah) is committed not to fire rockets, then any rocket that is fired from the Lebanese territory would be considered collaboration with Israel to provide a pretext (for Israel) to strike,” he said.

Ties with Syria at issue
Israel has long accused Syria, along with Iran, of arming and supporting Hezbollah. During the war, however, Israel avoided trying to draw Syria into the conflict, apparently fearing another front or closing peace options.

On Monday, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Israel should resume the negotiations with Syria that broke down in 2000.

“What we did with Egypt and Jordan is also legitimate in this case,” Dichter told Israeli Army Radio. Asked if that meant Israel should withdraw to its international border with Syria, giving up the Golan Heights region Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War, he said: “Yes.”

But Olmert ruled out talks now, saying Syria must first halt its support for Hezbollah. He said that if that happened, “I am the last person to say I wouldn’t like, in time, to reach some kind of understanding or some kind of dialogue with our neighbors, including Syria.”

Lebanese leader decries Israel
On Sunday, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a Sunni Muslim, and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite and Hezbollah supporters, decried the destruction wrought by Israeli bombs as “crimes against humanity” during a highly publicized tour of the devastated guerrilla stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“What we see today is an image of the crimes Israel has committed. ... There is no other description other than a criminal act that shows Israel’s hatred to destroy Lebanon and its unity,” Saniora told reporters and television crews invited on the tour of the region where Israeli airstrikes destroyed whole neighborhoods.

Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo to discuss setting up a fund for rebuilding Lebanon. The meeting ended with no plan, but the ministers said a social and economic council would convene to discuss how to finance reconstruction.

Diplomats said Arabs want to counter the flood of money that is believed to be flowing from Iran to Hezbollah to finance reconstruction projects.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has not said where its money is coming from.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Jack Redden said nearly all of the 180,000 Lebanese who took refuge in Syria during the war had returned by Sunday, leaving only 2,500 to 5,000 refugees there.

“These are presumably all people who are quite vulnerable and can’t go back immediately. So, we’ve got teams going to check on their condition and see what the problem is that is preventing them from returning,” Redden said.