Italy's foreign minister told Time magazine Hizbullah is "an important part of Lebanese society" and the UN peacekeeping force's goal is not to destroy the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group.
In an interview published on Saturday on Time's Web site, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said the peacekeepers are being sent in to shore up the democratic government of Lebanon after a 34-day war between Israel and Hizbullah.
"The Arab world is at a crossroads, with democratic impulses facing off with a violent religious fundamentalism," D'Alema told Time. "We want the democratic forces to prevail. So this UN force is there to strengthen the Lebanese government."
When asked by Time what that would mean for Hizbullah, which the United States regards as a terrorist group, D'Alema said: "Our objective is not to destroy Hizbullah, which by now is an important part of Lebanese society. We hope Hizbullah transforms into a legitimate political movement, but now if it wants to resume hostilities, it knows that it must face the international community."
A fragile truce between Israel and Hizbullah took effect on Aug. 14, after more than a month of fighting that killed more than 1,300 people, mostly Lebanese civilians.
'Nature of the conflict has changed'
Italy has agreed to contribute up to 3,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping force. The first wave of its troops will be sent to Lebanon on Tuesday, according to an Italian defense ministry source.
The Italian government hopes a successful mission in Lebanon will pave the way for international peacekeepers to play a role in a broader Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
D'Alema told Time Italy and other countries were deploying 15,000 soldiers to Lebanon because they want to help guarantee Israel's security.
But he characterized Israel's bombing of Lebanon as a "knee-jerk reaction, rather than a specific strategy."
"You need to have clear ends in mind. The nature of the conflict has changed," D'Alema said in the interview. "It is not just an Israeli-Arab conflict. There is the risk that Israel will be seen as the first hostile outpost of the West, and in the epoch of the clash of civilizations, this is very dangerous."
The war erupted when Hizbullah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.