- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

NAHARIYA, Israel — Israel’s government called up tens of thousands of reservists yesterday, while its inner Cabinet chose to pursue an immediate strategy of air strikes and limited ground incursions rather than expand the war in Lebanon.

Lebanon estimated that more than 600 civilians had been killed in 16 days of fighting, including up to 200 buried in the rubble of buildings leveled by Israeli air strikes.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah reportedly was in Damascus, Syria, for meetings with top officials of Syria and Iran, the main backers of his Shi’ite militia, which controls southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut.

“Citizens of Israel, we are in the midst of a war. We are preparing for every possible scenario. We are drafting reserve forces, so if needed, we will operate with the necessary force,” said Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Israeli air strikes on southern Lebanon yesterday struck roads and houses, many thought to be the deserted homes of Hezbollah activists, in the apple-growing region of Iqlim al-Tuffah. The strikes caused casualties, but fighting kept ambulances and civil defense crews from the areas, security officials and witnesses said.

Other strikes hit a Lebanese army base in the north, while artillery and warplanes pounded the area near the border, according to witnesses.

However, the fierce ground battles that raged Wednesday for the border towns of Bint Jbeil and nearby Maroun al-Ras appeared to have abated, with U.N. observers reporting only “sporadic fighting” there.

Nine Israeli soldiers died fighting in the area on Wednesday.

Military commentators discounted the decision to concentrate on avoiding an all-out ground assault for now, saying it was unlikely that Israel would approve a large call-up if it didn’t have plans to utilize the reservists.

Though no date for the reservists to report was announced, plans called for up to 30,000 part-time troops to be prepared.

An estimated 51 Israelis have been killed in the fighting and by rocket attacks on Haifa and other northern cities.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Malaysia for a security conference, said she was “willing and ready” to return to the Middle East to work for a sustainable peace agreement.

But President Bush suggested he would support the offensive for as long as it takes to cripple Hezbollah. He also condemned Iran for its support of the Muslim militant group.

Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said the failure of foreign ministers of the United States, Europe and the Middle East to call for an “immediate” cease-fire at a meeting in Rome on Wednesday had given Israel a “green light to push harder to wipe out the Lebanese guerrillas.”

European leaders said Mr. Ramon was mistaken.

“I would say just the opposite — yesterday in Rome it was clear that everyone present wanted to see an end to the fighting as swiftly as possible,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

Israel began its offensive in Lebanon on July 12, after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the Lebanese-Israeli border, killed three Israeli soldiers on patrol and captured two.

Since then, more than 600 civilians in Lebanon have been killed in a punishing campaign of air strikes, artillery shelling and clashes, Lebanese Health Minister Jawad Khalifeh said yesterday, with 382 confirmed dead and the rest either known to be buried under the rubble of buildings or missing.

The guerrillas shot 110 rockets into Israel yesterday, wounding about 20 people and bringing the total number of rockets launched to 1,564.

The Israeli army broadcast a warning on its Arabic-language radio station yesterday telling Lebanese in the south that their villages would be “totally destroyed” if rockets were fired from them.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff, said that there have been hundreds of Hezbollah casualties and that “we have caused serious damage to their rocket-launching capabilities.”

But Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, said Israel would never be able to crush the group militarily, and should stop fighting and start talking.

“Whatever [Israel] does, it’s not going to reach its goal,” Mr. Lahoud told the Associated Press. “They’re not going to be able to take out the weaponry of Hezbollah. So all they’re doing is massive destruction.”

In Damascus, Syrian and Iranian officials gathered to hold meetings on the crisis, according to Iranian and Kuwaiti news reports.

Sheik Nasrallah also was to take part in the meeting, as was Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to Kuwait’s Al-Seyassah newspaper, known for its opposition to the Syrian regime.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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