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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 14: Possible EU troop movements to Israel and/or the Middle East

Rome conference endorses UN force in Middle East
By Mark Beunderman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - A high-profile international conference on the Middle East, attended by a top-level EU delegation, has under US pressure not called for an immediate ceasefire in the region - but has endorsed the idea of a peacekeeping force "under a UN mandate."

The extraordinary meeting in Rome, chaired by Italian foreign minister Massimo d'Alema, addressed the ongoing bloodshed between Israel and Islamist Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, with US foreign secretary Condoleezza Rice and UN secretary general Kofi Annan participating in the talks.

Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, as well as Lebanon itself, were also present at the talks and had lobbied for the final declaration of the text to include a call for an immediate cease-fire, according to press reports.

But the final Rome declaration only offers a watered-down version of this demand, stating "Participants expressed their determination to work immediately to reach, with utmost urgency, a ceasefire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities. The ceasefire must be lasting, permanent and sustainable."

Ms Rice stressed after the talks that "we cannot return to the status quo ante" and that any ceasefire must be "sustainable this time," reflecting US demands that Israel should be given security guarantees against Hezbollah before a cease-fire.

The EU attended with a top delegation from both the EU institutions as well as individual member states.

Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja represented the bloc's current presidency and was accompanied by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana as well as external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The EU's big three, France, Germany and the UK, also had a place around the table, as well as Mediterranean member states Spain, Greece and Cyprus.

The EU was itself divided at the meeting, with France joining UN chief Kofi Annan in calling for an immediate ceasefire while the UK was more in line with the US, according to press reports.

EU calls emergency meeting
The Finnish presidency has scheduled an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers next week on Tuesday (1 August), while member states' EU ambassadors will spend most of their time on the issue at a meeting tomorrow (27 July).

Member states have been more united in supporting a UN-led peace force which should secure the Israeli-Lebanese border in the near future.

The Rome meeting confirmed this plan, with the declaration saying "An international force in Lebanon should urgently be authorized under a UN mandate to support a Lebanese armed force to provide a secure environment.''

France's president Jacques Chirac in an interview on Wednesday (26 July) opposed the idea of a NATO-led peace force, amid reports that Jerusalem favours NATO over UN involvement.

"As far as France is concerned, it is not NATO's mission to put together such a force," Mr Chirac told the daily newspaper Le Monde. "Whether we like it or not, NATO is perceived as the armed wing of the west in these regions, and as a result, in terms of image, NATO is not intended for this."

The peacekeeping force is likely to be the one dominating topic at the EU meeting next week with EU top diplomat Solana saying "I cannot imagine the force without any Europeans".

"It is fundamental that some European countries will participate", he said.

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