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Israeli leadership at odds over investigation of war effort

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz broke yesterday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by calling for an independent inquiry into their government's handling of the recent conflict in Lebanon.

It was the first serious disagreement between the leaders since they became coalition partners four months ago.

In a separate development, Syria promised yesterday to increase border patrols and work with Lebanese troops to thwart the flow of arms to its ally Hezbollah, but Israel questioned whether Damascus would be a ``reliable force" in guarding the border.

Olmert and Peretz have come under intense public criticism for the less-than-decisive outcome of the conflict, which ended with a cease-fire Aug. 14 after 34 days of fighting. The clash over the nature of an inquiry is expected to produce tension within the governing alliance led by Olmert and his centrist party, Kadima, and could sow deeper divisions.

Peretz, who leads the left-leaning Labor party, joined critics inside his party in calling for an independent state commission to look into how Israel's leaders performed during the conflict. He had been under pressure to come out against Olmert's plan to name an ad hoc government panel that critics said would be too pliant.

The version backed by Peretz would be headed by a judge and carry significant authority to conduct an investigation and recommend changes, including the dismissal of top-level public officials. Such commissions have been named to review wartime controversies in the past.

Olmert's proposal appears likely to gain Cabinet approval, even though Peretz and several other Labor ministers oppose it.

With public dissatisfaction high in Israel and protesters calling for the resignations of Olmert, Peretz, and the military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, the shape of a future inquiry has become politically charged.

Critics accused Olmert of attempting a whitewash in proposing his own examination of the government's conduct, which would be headed by a former chief of the Mossad spy agency.

Olmert, who has characterized the military campaign as a victory while conceding shortcomings, said a full-blown investigation by an independent commission could take years and that Israel needed to make any needed changes quickly. He said a separate panel would look into the army's role.

The promises that Syria would help halt the arms flow to Hezbollah were made by Syrian President Bashar Assad to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Preventing weapons from reaching Hezbollah is a key element of the UN resolution that halted Israeli-Hezbollah fighting Aug. 14. The truce also calls for a beefed-up UN force of 15,000 soldiers in southern Lebanon and more nations committed troops to the mission yesterday.

The UN chief said that if Syria follows through in tightening control of the border, peace efforts will be greatly helped. ``I have no reason to believe it will not be done," Annan said.

But Israel pointed to Syria's past role in allegedly supplying weapons to the Shi'ite guerrillas of Hezbollah and said it doubted Assad's regime had changed its stance.

``Israel does not think that Syria . . . has shown any reason to be a reliable force," said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Olmert.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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