WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday called for quick deployment of an international force to help uphold the fragile cease-fire in Lebanon. “The need is urgent,” Bush said.
At a White House news conference, Bush also conceded that the war in Iraq, with daily bombings and U.S. casualties now standing at more than 2,600 was “straining the psyche of our country.”
“Sometimes I’m frustrated. Rarely surprised. Wars are not a time of joy,” the president said. “These are challenging times, and difficult times.” He conceded that the war had become a major issue in this year’s midterm congressional elections.
Bush opened his news conference, his first full-scale question-and-answer session since July 7 in Chicago, with a statement about humanitarian aid and an international peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon after 34 days of fighting.
“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,” Bush said.
A U.N. cease-fire resolution has authorized up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help an equal number of Lebanese troops extend their authority into south Lebanon as Israel withdraws its soldiers. The U.N. wants 3,500 troops on the ground by next Monday, but so far, no European countries have stepped up with a large contribution of forces.
France, which commands the existing U.N. peacekeeping 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 troops.
“I would hope that they would put more troops in,” Bush said of France’s commitment.
He said the international force would help keep the militant Hezbollah organization from acting as a “state within a state.”
“The United States will do our part,” Bush said. While the U.S. does not plan to contribute troops, it will provide logistical support, command and control assistance and intelligence.
He said it was “the most effective contribution we can make at this time.”
Bush also said his administration was pledging an additional $230 million to help the Lebanese rebuild their homes and return to their towns and communities.
Turning to Iraq, Bush said that if the government there fails, it could turn the country into a “safe haven for terrorists and extremists” and give the insurgents revenues from oil sales.
“I hear a lot of talk about civil war. I’m concerned about that, of course, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it. And what I’ve found from my talks are that the Iraqis want a unified country. And that the Iraqi leadership is determined to thwart the efforts of the extremists and the radicals,” Bush said.
His news conference was held in the White House conference center, the temporary quarters for White House news reporters during a renovation of the media briefing room in the West Wing.
“Fancy digs you’ve got here,” Bush quipped.
On Iran, Bush said the United States is getting some inkling of Tehran’s response to international calls for it to abandon its nuclear ambitions. A U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month called on Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment by Aug. 31 or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Asked if he was confident the Security Council would move quickly on sanctions if Iran refuses to comply, Bush said, “Certainly hope so. In order for the U.N. to be effective, there must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council.”