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French Lebanon Plan Gaining Force; US Officials 'Furious'

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post
DAMASCUS, Syria

Syria and Lebanon appeared Monday to be rallying around key aspects of a French cease-fire plan for Lebanon, complicating efforts by the United States and Israel to persuade all parties that the U.S. proposal offers the best prospects for a lasting truce.

A day after Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres called on all parties to work through the United States as the sole mediating channel, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fares Bouez said his country believes the French initiative is "very realistic" and contains several points that should serve as foundations of an eventual resolution.

That was seen as a sign that Syria, too, views France's proposals favorably, since Beirut takes its diplomatic cues from Damascus.

As Secretary of State Warren Christopher pursued his shuttle diplomacy, trying to defuse a raging conflict between Lebanese Shiite Muslim guerrillas and Israeli armed forces, U.S. officials could barely conceal growing exasperation with the French and other intermediaries who have come to the region with their own agendas for peace - some of them more attractive to Israel's foes than the ideas being pushed by Christopher.

To the consternation of Washington, for instance, France and its European partners have been touting a "critical dialogue" with Iran. The Americans insist they can cut a peace agreement by dealing only with Syria and they want to isolate Iran. But the French say Iran's cooperation would be helpful in maintaining long-term stability because Iranians exercise important influence as political mentors and chief arms suppliers for Lebanon's Hezbollah, whose guerrilla forces have been the main Israeli target in a 12-day air and artillery blitz in Lebanon.

French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette met Saturday in Damascus with Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, who was here to visit Hezbollah's leadership. French participants said de Charette warned Velayati that Iran's dialogue with Europe is at stake unless he can persuade Hezbollah to show restraint and abide by an eventual peace deal.

Christopher and his top aides were described as "infuriated" by the French attempt to coax Iran's cooperation and by introducing conflicting signals into their own mediation effort. U.S. officials said Iran is trying to sabotage the Middle East peace process and goaded Hezbollah into firing rockets into Israel in order to provoke a violent Israeli response.

U.S. officials have declined to discuss details of their proposal, insisting that discretion is vital to the success of the mission. But French officials elaborated on several key aspects in which they said the United States and France differ on how to achieve a lasting cease-fire.

The United States, the French said, is seeking, on behalf of Israel, commitments by Syria and Lebanon to constrain the guerrillas from launching attacks on Israeli forces operating inside the portion of southern Lebanon that Israel occupies and calls a "security zone."

France shares the view of Syria and Lebanon that such commitments are one-sided.

"If we want to be fair-minded, we should stick to protecting the interests of civilians on both sides of the border. But there are no Israeli civilians inside the security zone,' and Hezbollah insists it should reserve the right to conduct military operations against an occupying force," a French official said.

The French plan proposes that a comprehensive peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel - in which Israeli troops would completely withdraw in exchange for security guarantees - should be reached by the end of the year. That would give the Shiite guerrillas what a French official called "a face-saving device" in arguing that they have achieved a set date for Israel's pullout from their territory.

In addition, French officials said de Charette is promoting the idea of an international monitoring committee to supervise a truce in southern Lebanon. They said France is willing to send more troops to supplement the 250 peacekeepers it has there with U.N. forces, or else civilian monitors if the signatories desire.

The purpose of the monitoring committee would be to investigate the cause of any violations of the cease-fire that would grow out of written commitments based on an oral accord reached between Israel and Hezbollah in 1993. Any retaliatory action would be prohibited while the committee determines who was guilty of breaking the cease-fire.