The US called for the quick deployment of an expanded UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon and said a new UN resolution may be needed later to focus on disarming Hezbollah militants and enforcing an arms embargo.
Noting the fragility of the Israeli-Hezbollah ceasefire, US Ambassador John Bolton on Monday made clear that the top priority for the US is to put an additional 3,500 soldiers on the ground within the next week and then quickly increase the force to 15,000 troops, joining an equal number of Lebanese troops.
Italy offered to replace France as head of the force after Paris disappointed top UN and US officials by making only a small pledge of 200 new troops. By contrast, Italy has indicated it would be prepared to send 3,000 soldiers. If Rome follows through, other European countries might be more willing to commit troops, as the US has been urging.
Bolton said the issue of disarming Hezbollah, key to establishing lasting peace between Lebanon and Israel, will likely have to be addressed "in due course" in a new resolution.
Hezbollah is already required to disarm under a September 2004 UN resolution, and council diplomats are certain to look carefully at exactly what a new resolution would do. If it authorizes the UN force to disarm the guerrillas, there would likely be strong opposition from those who believe that disarmament should be carried out only as a result of an agreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.
But in any event, getting boots on the ground is key, said Bolton's spokesman Richard Grenell.
"It's premature to talk about the timing of a second resolution at this point," he said. "Our priority right now is to get a robust international force on the ground."
While several Muslim nations have pledged troops to the new force, there have been no major pledges from Europe. The US wants broad European participation to ensure that the UN contingent is balanced and broadly acceptable to both the Israelis and Lebanese.
The EU's Peace and Security Committee added the issue of contributions to the force, known as UNIFIL, to its agenda last Wednesday. But one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, cautioned against any major new announcements.
France, which leads the current 2,000-strong force, had been expected to make a significant new contribution and continue its command.
But French President Jacques Chirac, wary of getting involved without a clear UN mandate to use firepower if necessary, announced last week that France would immediately add only 200 combat engineers to its 200 troops already serving in UNIFIL, though he did not rule out a future increase. France said it was willing to continue leading the force until February.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said on Monday he told UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Italy is willing to command the UN force.
"It is a decision that Kofi Annan will take at the end of broad consultations," Prodi said, according to the Italian news agencies ANSA and Apcom.
The US and France sponsored the ceasefire resolution that was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council and led to the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah last Monday. The resolution also authorized deployment of an expanded UN force, and US and French military experts played key roles in drafting its rules of engagement and concept of operations.