BEIRUT, Lebanon—Thousands of Lebanese soldiers were set to head south Thursday to take over territory seized by Israel in its war with Hezbollah. But Lebanon said its army wouldn't be disarming the militants or searching for their weapons.
Some Israeli troops occupying Lebanon's southern tier, meanwhile, began pulling out and heading home, the army said.
The exact time for the deployment was not announced, although officials expected troops to begin moving at 6 a.m. on Thursday.
The Lebanese government's decisions virtually assured, for now, that Hezbollah's sophisticated arsenal of missiles and anti-tank weapons would remain in southern Lebanon, perhaps hidden from view but still easily within striking distance of northern Israel.
Lebanese officials said it was a compromise to avoid a confrontation with Hezbollah, an increasingly powerful force in Lebanon since the monthlong war. Hezbollah's leader has claimed victory over Israel and said this is "the wrong time" to discuss giving up its weapons despite a U.N.-brokered call for the group's disarmament.
Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said that the Lebanese deployment presented "a chance for peace." But, she said, unless Hezbollah was eventually disarmed, the region would continue to see more violence like that of the past month, which left more than 1,000 Lebanese and 150 Israelis dead.
"We must ensure that the end result of the process will be the full and complete disarmament of Hezbollah," Livni said. "The world cannot allow itself to repeat the omissions of the past, to allow Hezbollah to rise again and threaten the future of the region."
By sending its army to patrol the south, Lebanon hoped to speed diplomatic efforts to form and deploy an enhanced, 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force. On Wednesday, U.N. officials said they welcomed the Lebanese deployment but said the movement of international forces into the area was likely still several days away.
The Bush administration was fully on board, praising the Lebanese government's decision to put its troops on the move. At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow offered assurances that disarmament would happen eventually. "It's going to take some time," he said.
Under last week's U.N. resolution, the Lebanese and U.N. forces together will gradually take over land currently occupied by Israeli forces and patrol the southern fifth of Lebanon, Hezbollah's traditional stronghold, between the Litani River and the Israeli border.
Lebanese officials said all 15,000 Lebanese troops would be in place within three to four days. U.N. peacekeepers stationed outside the southern town of Tyre said early Thursday that the soldiers were expected to arrive later Thursday afternoon and take over highway checkpoints and other positions throughout the south.
Under the cease-fire, which took effect Monday, the Lebanese and U.N. forces are to be the only armed groups in the region. But the cease-fire plan doesn't give the U.N. peacekeepers the authority to disarm Hezbollah.
The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has said it wants Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to allow the national army to control security in the country.
But in negotiations over the past several days with Hezbollah representatives, Saniora and his backers withdrew calls for the group to disarm. Hezbollah is believed to have several thousand short-range Katyusha rockets, plus dozens of medium-range Iranian-made rockets and an undisclosed number of other, more advanced weapons.
On Wednesday evening, Saniora's Cabinet approved something of a don't-ask-don't-tell policy on the weapons: The Lebanese army may seize arms that they see. But they won't go looking for them.
"There will be no arms other than official arms," said Lebanon's acting interior minister, Ahmed Fatfat. "Where they (soldiers) find weapons, they will take them."
Saniora said the long-term security of Lebanon required Hezbollah to disarm eventually.
"No national unity is achieved except with a single sovereign and free state, with single decision-making and with no dual authority," he said in a televised address.
Members of Saniora's government said they had assurances from Hezbollah that it would abide by the cease-fire and accept the army's authority. But with thousands of Israeli troops still inside Lebanon—and disputes with Israel over the Chebaa Farms territory and prisoners still unresolved—Lebanese officials said it was politically impossible to convince Hezbollah's fighters to abandon what they call their "resistance."
In the village of Aaitaroune Wednesday morning, there was no sign that Hezbollah fighters were putting down their weapons. A few men toting AK-47s watched through binoculars as several dozen Israeli soldiers walked toward the village through a valley of tobacco fields.
"Hezbollah has pledged to collaborate fully with the Lebanese army, which is going as a totally friendly and national force," said Michel Pharaon, minister of parliamentary affairs.
But Pharaon acknowledged that the presence of thousands of Hezbollah weapons could invite another Israeli military campaign on southern Lebanon.
"We are of course a little worried for the future," Pharaon said. "But practically ... we couldn't see it any other way at this time."
Milos Strugar, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Lebanon, said there were no immediate plans to move 2,000 U.N. troops already in Lebanon into the new peacekeeping mission. Up to 13,000 more U.N. troops have been authorized, and envoys from several countries—France, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia—were in Beirut Wednesday to discuss possibly contributing troops.
On Wednesday, the French foreign minister indicated for the first time that France would be willing to lead the peacekeeping mission at least until February.
It's been 36 years since the Lebanese army was last deployed in the south, where Hezbollah has been the dominant force for the past two decades. On Wednesday there was little government presence in the region besides traffic cops, while Hezbollah agents were widely visible assessing damages and pledging to help families rebuild destroyed homes.
Throughout the streets, yellow signs were flying to proclaim Hezbollah victory, written in English, Arabic and French.
(Leila Fadel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in southern Lebanon and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Nada Raad in Beirut contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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