- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday she will travel to the Middle East and Europe for talks to end the fighting in Lebanon, but that the United States will not press Israel for a quick end to its offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas.

“We do seek an end to the current violence, we seek it urgently,” Miss Rice said. “We also seek to address the root causes of that violence. A cease-fire would be a false promise if it simply returns us to the status quo.”

Miss Rice spoke to reporters in Washington after receiving a briefing from a United Nations fact-finding team in New York earlier in the day.

She leaves tomorrow for Israel and the Palestinian territories, before joining a multinational conference on the Lebanon crisis in Rome set for midweek.

Despite calls from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Lebanese government and a number of European leaders, Miss Rice firmly rejected calls for an immediate, unconditional halt to Israel’s 11-day-old incursion, saying any meaningful settlement must include disarming the Hezbollah fighters and preventing their use of southern Lebanon as a base for future attacks on Israel.

She said there were no “quick fixes” to the threat Hezbollah poses to the region, and defended her decision to hold off on a trip to the region while the fighting intensified and civilian casualties mounted over the past week.

“I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling, without it being clear what I was shuttling to do,” she said, but talks at the United Nations and the Group of Eight summit in Russia helped build support for a more “durable” settlement.

Miss Rice said a prime focus of the discussions this week will be the composition and marching orders of a proposed international force that could be deployed to southern Lebanon to help the weak government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora re-establish control.

U.S. troops are not expected to be part of the peacekeeping force, she said.

Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting have accelerated amid fears the clash could spiral out of control, possibly dragging Hezbollah’s patrons Iran and Syria into a direct clash with Israel.

Senior diplomats from France, Germany and Britain were in the Middle East, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal will make a hastily arranged trip to Washington to meet with President Bush and Miss Rice tomorrow before she departs.

Italian officials said the Rome meeting Wednesday will include representatives from Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, leading European Union powers, the World Bank and the United Nations.

Top Iranian cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in his weekly sermon in Tehran yesterday, hailed the Hezbollah fighters as “heroes” and dismissed U.S. and Israeli charges that Iran and Syria masterminded Hezbollah’s assault.

“It is misleading to say that Iran and Syria are carrying this out. These are careless statements,” he said.

Miss Rice said she did not know Israel’s military plans and declined to speculate on reports Israel is planning a broad ground assault to flush out Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.

“The Israelis have said they have made no decision to widen the conflict, and I take them at their word,” she said.

Implicitly linking the Lebanese clash to the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, Miss Rice said the current turmoil is part of the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

Hezbollah’s Islamist fighters, she said, were trying to undermine the fragile new democratic government in Beirut because it was a threat to their “extremist” ideas.

Hezbollah and its allies “want to strangle [the Lebanese government] in its crib,” she said.

“They are frightened by the prospect of a Lebanon that is no longer a source of instability, no longer so weak that people use its territory in this way, much as these extremists want to strangle other new democratic governments in the region,” she said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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