Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said the move created the backbone of a credible force, which could total up to 15,000 troops, even though EU officials warned it could be months before its full deployment.

Annan called for the first troops to arrive in Lebanon in days and Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, said the Italian contingent could leave as soon as Tuesday.

Annan said: "When you put it all together, Europe is providing the backbone to the force...We can now begin to put together a credible force that the [UN] Security Council authorised.

"We should deploy, I hope, within the next few days, not the next few weeks."

Clarifying doubts over the leadership of the mission, Annan said he had asked France, who will contribute 2,000 troops, to continue to lead UNIFIL until February 2007. The leadership would then pass to Italy, which has pledged up to 3,000 soldiers.

Fresh hostilities

European countries feared getting caught in the crossfire of any fresh hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah fighters and wanted assurances they would operate under robust enough rules to be able to defend themselves, diplomats said.

"We should deploy, I hope, within the next few days, not the next few weeks."

Kofi Annan, UN secretary general

Spain said it was ready to send up to 1,200 troops.
  
Poland said it was prepared to contribute about 500 troops, Belgium offered up to 400 and, the current EU president, Finland said it was preparing a company of up to 250.
  
UN officials want a strong European contingent alongside a sizeable Muslim component in the expanded UNIFIL force, which is to work with 15,000 Lebanese troops being deployed in the south.

Divisions

Annan said that Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh had offered troops. Israel has already opposed contributions from those Muslim countries because of an absence of diplomatic relations.

He also said that he was in contact with Turkey over its role.
  
Highlighting the divisions in Turkey over the issue, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Turkey's president, said: "Sending soldiers is not our responsibility. I'm against it."
 
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, is known to favour sending troops.

Jacques Chirac, the French president, whose diplomats helped draft the August 11 UN Security Council resolution on the peacekeepers, said a force of 15,000 was "completely excessive".

He also defended his initial offer of just 200 troops, which had been widely criticised, and said that he agreed to send the additional troops after securing a robust mandate for UNIFIL.

He said: "I wonder how it would have been judged if I had raced off like a mad dog without thinking or securing minimum guarantees."

Annan insisted that 15,000 remained the UN's "working figure" and said: "We will put in the men and assets required to get the job done - no more, no less."

Blockade

The UN-backed truce took effect on August 14 after 34 days of fighting which killed nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mainly soldiers.

Sixty-three per cent of Israelis
want Olmert to resign

About 150 French soldiers arrived by ship in Lebanon's southern port of Naqoura on Friday to join 50 extra troops already sent as part of France's initial offer of 200.

Israel wants the increased UN force to move to the border before it withdraws fully from Lebanon. It has also vowed to keep its partial sea and air blockade on Lebanon until the force deploys on the Syrian border to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

Syria has threatened to close the border - Lebanon's only land outlet - if UN troops are sent there.

In a public rebuke for failing to deliver a fatal blow to Hezbollah, a poll published on Friday showed that 63% of Israelis want Ehud Olmert to resign.

The Yedioth Aronoth poll showed for the first time a majority favoured Olmert quitting, along with a surge in support for the rightwing Likud party and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu.