Blue helmet blues

When Master Corporal Fabio Corleone patrols the narrow dusty roads of South Lebanon in his lightly armored Puma troop carrier, he cannot help but dwell on the fate of six peacekeeping colleagues killed in a car bomb last month.

"Yes, I think about it, we all do," the Italian soldier said, moments before leading an armored patrol of eight soldiers along the Lebanon-Israel border.

Like every rock was a potential bomb to Israeli troops occupying South Lebanon in the 1990s, so every parked car on the side of the road now spells potential death for the troops serving with the 13,500-strong United Nations peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL. These fears were once again justified on Monday, when a small bomb targeted a UNIFIL military police vehicle at Qasimiyeh, 10 kilometers north of Tyre.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

When UNIFIL's strength was boosted nearly a year ago from a caretaker force of 2,000 armed observers, the main concern was the reaction of Hezbollah, which emerged from the month-long war with Israel claiming a "divine victory."

The UN gave assurances that the new UNIFIL would be a "robust" force with several leading European countries dispatching crack troops and armor to give it teeth and credibility. Still, it was principally for show – the last thing the governments of the troop-contributing states desired was for their soldiers to take on Hezbollah or Israel.

It became evident early on that Hezbollah was choosing not to confront UNIFIL and would grudgingly accept UN Resolution 1701 which helped end the fighting. Instead, Hezbollah abandoned its positions and bunkers in the UNIFIL area and regrouped to a new line of defense north of the Litani river.

Certainly, Hezbollah men remain in the villages where they live and keep a close eye on UNIFIL, especially the European contingents with their reconnaissance drones and heavy armored vehicles.

UNIFIL sources say that patrols are occasionally followed by civilians in cars or on foot. Sometimes, these individuals take photographs of the soldiers, although there have been no incidents of violence between them.

As Lebanon's political crisis began to worsen after the war, worrying signals emerge that UNIFIL could be a tempting target for al-Qaeda or groups inspired by Osama bin Laden. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's number two, referred to UNIFIL twice in speeches, claiming that the "international crusader forces" were blocking the "mujahadeen" from reaching the border to fight Israel.

The emergence of Fatah al-Islam and its two-month confrontation with the Lebanese army also heightened the fear of attack on UNIFIL.

The expected attack finally came on June 24, when a Spanish BMR armored vehicle was hit by a bomb packed inside a Renault Rapide parked on the side of the road.

A military source familiar with the investigation into the bombing said that the attack was very carefully planned and the perpetrators would have spent weeks, possibly months, in preparation. The location of the bomb ambush – on a north-south road running just west of Khiam – was selected for its numerous line-of-sight opportunities. From the high ground flanking the valley on both sides, the triggerman would have had a clear view of the targeted vehicle as it approached the car bomb. Furthermore, it is a religiously mixed area of Christian, Druze and Shia towns where Hezbollah’s pervasive grip is weaker than in purely Shia districts where the arrival of strangers is quickly noted.

Investigators believe that the bomb, which was configured to direct the blast laterally against the target, weighed as much as 60 kilograms of  military grade explosive (one source thinks it was closer to 100 kilograms) packed with aluminum powder to augment the fireball effect. The blast spun the 14 ton, six-wheeler BMR armored vehicle 180 degrees and knocked it off the road, igniting ammunition inside the vehicle and fuel canisters tied to the outside. Six soldiers were killed in the explosion, although two others, who had been standing through the rear turrets, were thrown clear by the blast and miraculously survived.

According to the military source, the bomb ambush was a "real accomplishment" similar to some car bombs used recently in Afghanistan. It was the work of experienced and technically proficient bomb makers, the source said.

Still, the first attack came as no surprise given the mounting intelligence of threats against the force. Just two days before the deadly bombing, UNIFIL received a warning of a possible suicide bomber targeting its headquarters in Naqoura.

Although al-Qaeda did not take responsibility for the attack – no one has yet – Zawahiri did praise the bombing in a taped statement released last week.

The only good news, perhaps, for UNIFIL in all this is that the sophistication of the bomb and planning that went into the operation suggests that attacks of this magnitude won’t be a common occurrence. However, Monday’s explosion, though much smaller, indicates that a sustained bombing campaign against the peacekeepers is underway.

A troubling consequence of this heightened threat to UNIFIL by radical jihadi groups is that some of the troop-contributing countries have begun turning to Hezbollah, hoping to enlist the cooperation of the Shia group in protecting their soldiers. UNIFIL contingents are not supposed to have any direct contact with Hezbollah – or any other Lebanese political groups – as their official channel of communication is through the Lebanese army.

"It's highly forbidden," said Major General Claudio Graziano, UNIFIL's commander. "I have a relationship with the [Lebanese] government through the Lebanese army. I have no relations with Hezbollah in terms of security."

Still, three months ago, intelligence agents from France, Italy and Spain met with Hezbollah representatives in Saida. As a result of that meeting, some Spanish UNIFIL patrols are now "escorted" by Hezbollah militants in cars. Following last month's bombing, Spanish UNIFIL officers met with local Hezbollah officials, according to a South Lebanon-based party official.

But in fact, there is nothing new about UNIFIL's liaison channels with Hezbollah. When the Shia group began to consolidate its presence in South Lebanon in the late 1980s – and clashed several times with UNIFIL – discreet contacts were made between the peacekeepers and Hezbollah to reduce misunderstandings and hostility. That arrangement continued and strengthened during the 1990s. Hezbollah liaison officers were regularly invited to attend UNIFIL medal parades.

Timur Goksel, who served with UNIFIL from 1979-2003, said in an interview published in the current edition of the Journal of Palestine Studies, that "one of the inherent weakness of any multi-national command – which is always worse in a UN command – is that the contingents make local deals with the forces on the ground, without telling headquarters.”

A year on from their arrival, it seems that the new contributors to UNIFIL are learning that peacekeeping in Lebanon is as much about nuance, compromise and dialogue as displaying a "robust" military presence with tanks and armored vehicles.

However, they would do well to keep in mind a final piece of advice from Goksel: “These [deals] always come back to haunt you.”

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based journalist and author of "Killing Mr. Lebanon – The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East."