- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

3:29 p.m.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In a surprise visit to a battered Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today praised the prime minister of Lebanon for trying to contain the fighting between the Hezbollah militia and Israel, but there were signs that her trip disappointed Lebanese leaders.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told Miss Rice that Israel’s bombardment was taking his country “backwards 50 years” and called for a “swift cease-fire,” his office said.

Also, an official close to Lebanon’s Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who is close to Hezbollah, said he did not reach an accord with Miss Rice because she wanted one comprehensive package to halt the fighting and diminish Hezbollah’s strength, rather than an immediate cease-fire.

David Welch, an assistant secretary of state, said later in Washington that it was “unfair” to say Miss Rice’s meeting with Mr. Berri went poorly.

Miss Rice’s five-hour visit, which opened her trip to the Middle East, marked the first high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to the area since fighting erupted 13 days ago.

Her stay was marked by tight security as motorcades whisked her through a pummeled capital city, passing cross streets that were blocked off by armed Lebanese security forces. She flew to Israel afterward for meetings with Israeli officials.

Mr. Siniora told Miss Rice that his government is looking to “put an end to the war that is being inflicted on Lebanon.” Bush administration officials have so far said that a cease-fire would be premature unless it addresses the threat Hezbollah fighters pose to Israel.

“Thank you for your courage and steadfastness,” Miss Rice told Mr. Siniora after he greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks.

In Washington, meanwhile, the White House announced that President Bush has ordered helicopters and ships to Lebanon to provide humanitarian aid. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said Miss Rice had discussed the assistance with Lebanese officials during her visit and would announce the U.S. commitment later in the day as she continued on to Israel.

Miss Rice and Mr. Siniora shook hands across a conference table on which there were two flags, one Lebanese and one American. Half a dozen other diplomats sat around the table.

Though southern Beirut has been targeted heavily by Israel because it is home to Hezbollah leaders, there have been no bombings in the city since yesterday afternoon. Reporters with Miss Rice heard no explosions during their brief stay.

Miss Rice said President Bush wanted her to make Lebanon the first stop on her trip to the region, which has been embroiled in combat between Israel and Hezbollah since July 12. It was her third visit to Lebanon and was intended to show support and concern for both the Siniora government and the Lebanese people, administration officials said.

Miss Rice also met for about 45 minutes with Mr. Berri, who is considered friendly to Syria, which held political and military sway in Lebanon for decades before pulling out troops last year.

Going into the session at Mr. Berri’s lavish office and residence, Miss Rice said, “I am deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they are enduring. I am obviously concerned about the humanitarian situation.”

Mr. Berri is an influential figure in Lebanon’s complicated and factionalized political structure. Although the United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist group and has no dealings with it, Miss Rice has met with Mr. Berri before. She could use her discussions with him to send an indirect message to Hezbollah and to try applying pressure on Syria.

Miss Rice also met with members of the Lebanese Parliament who have been staunch opponents of Syria’s influence in Lebanon. She also was scheduled to travel to Israel and to Rome, where she expected to meet with officials of European and moderate Arab governments.

Mr. Siniora and other Lebanese officials have been pushing Miss Rice to call for an immediate cease-fire, something the Bush administration has resisted on grounds that it would not address the root causes of hostilities — Hezbollah’s domination of southern Lebanon.

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