- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

1:27 p.m.

BEIRUT — Israeli forces battled Hezbollah guerrillas today across southern Lebanon as diplomats at the United Nations struggled to keep a peace plan from collapsing over Arab demands for an immediate Israeli withdrawal. Military planners in Jerusalem said they will push even deeper into Lebanon to target rocket sites.

Attempts to draw a cease-fire blueprint came down to a test between a step-by-step proposal backed by Washington and Lebanon’s insistence — supported by Arab allies — that nothing can happen before Israeli soldiers leave. In New York, Arab envoys and U.N. Security Council members tried to hammer out a compromise.

Lebanon put its offers on the table: pledging up to 15,000 troops to a possible peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon and saying Hezbollah’s days of running a state within a state would end. The military plan had added significance because it was backed by the two Hezbollah members on Lebanon’s Cabinet — apparently showing a willingness for a lasting pact by the Islamist militants and their main sponsors, Iran and Syria.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora praised Hezbollah’s resistance, but said it was time for Lebanon to “impose its full control, authority and presence” over the war-weary country.

“There will be no authority, no one in command, no weapons other than those of the Lebanese state,” he said on Al Arabiya television.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the proposed Lebanese troop deployment “interesting” and said Israel would favor pulling out once it decides Hezbollah is no longer a direct threat.

However, the rocky hills of southern Lebanon gave a different picture. Ground fighting continued in attempts to control key villages and strategic ridges near the Israeli border, including sites used for Hezbollah rocket barrages that have reached deep into Israel in the heaviest Arab-Israeli battles in 24 years.

At least 90 Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel by midafternoon.

Israeli artillery and air strikes pounded a broad swath of southern Lebanon from the Mediterranean coast to inland valleys — including many areas in the Hezbollah heartland now under a blanket curfew imposed by Israel to try to choke off arms routes. At least one civilian death was reported.

Some of the fiercest skirmishes broke out around the village of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold that Israel has tried to capture for weeks. An Israeli solider and 15 Hezbollah guerrillas were killed, the Israeli military said.

Hezbollah TV also reported pre-dawn attacks on Israeli forces near the Mediterranean town of Naqoura, about 2 1/2 miles north of the border. The Israeli military said two reserve soldiers were killed in the area.

The latest casualties brought the number of persons killed in Lebanon to at least 643, while the Israeli death toll was 100.

The clashes followed one of the bloodiest days of the four-week conflict. At least three Israeli soldiers and 49 Lebanese died yesterday — including 15 in a rocket attack in a Beirut suburb just hours after Arab League foreign ministers wrapped up a crisis meeting that threw their full diplomatic weight behind Lebanon.

It set the base-line demand for the Security Council: a full Israeli withdrawal or no peace deal is possible. The message was given in an emotional address by Mr. Siniora and carried to the U.N. by Arab League envoys.

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