- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2006

ROME — Foreign ministers from the United States, Europe and the Middle East agreed yesterday on the need for a beefed-up international security force under a U.N. mandate on the Israeli-Lebanese border, but they failed to agree on a plan to halt fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.

During an emergency conference that included top diplomats from 16 nations and three international organizations, the United States resisted calls for an “immediate” cease-fire, saying it would only perpetuate an unstable status quo.

“The cease-fire must be lasting, permanent and sustainable,” the diplomats said in a closing statement, using language sought by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who appeared visibly exhausted as the conference ended.

The statement also pledged that participants would “work immediately” and “with the utmost urgency” toward ending the hostilities.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called separately for an “urgent effort to help bring peace and stability to that region” and for a “temporary cessation of hostilities” to carry out “essential humanitarian tasks.”

“It is important that we get a political framework that will buttress whatever understanding that we reach eventually through the Security Council and through discussions with countries involved,” he said.

Several participants in the conference said they expected the Security Council to begin discussing a resolution on an international force in the next few days.

Miss Rice flew to a conference in Malaysia yesterday but could return to the Middle East this weekend, U.S. officials said. She visited Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories earlier in the week.

“What we’ve agreed upon is that there should be an international force under a U.N. mandate that will have a strong and robust capability to help bring about peace, to help provide the ability for humanitarian efforts to go forward and to bring an end to the violence,” Miss Rice said.

Javier Solana, foreign policy chief of the European Union, told the gathering that his organization would make a “substantial contribution” to the security force once there is a political agreement between Israel and Hezbollah, although he did not name the countries that would send troops, a European official said.

Diplomats said France, Italy and Spain had offered to take part in the force. In addition, Turkey, Sweden, Greece and Finland have said they would consider joining.

The force would be separate from a U.N. observer force that has operated in the region for nearly three decades. Four of its members died during an Israeli air strike Tuesday.

France and Germany rejected an Israeli idea that NATO lead the security force. The alliance works by consensus, and no decision can be taken if a single member is opposed.

“Like it or not, NATO is perceived as the armed wing of the West in this region, so in terms of its image, NATO is not right for the job,” French President Jacques Chirac told the newspaper Le Monde.

A German government spokesman ruled out sending the alliance’s newly created reaction force, saying NATO “does not have priority for a possible stabilization force.”

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he did not exclude a future role for the 26-nation organization, but he added, “This is not the moment.”

Israel and Hezbollah were not invited to the Rome conference, which was co-hosted by Miss Rice, Mr. Annan and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema. Nor were Hezbollah supporters Syria and Iran.

Mr. Annan said, “It is important that we work with the countries of the region to find a solution, and that should also include Iran and Syria.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said his country’s “barbaric destruction” by Israel has brought it “to its knees.”

The conference, whose participants also included Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, began with a minute of silence for the about 450 victims of the 15-day-old conflict.

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