Rice Outlines Proposal to Deploy Force In Lebanon

By Robin Wright and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

BEIRUT, July 24 -- On an unannounced trip to ravaged Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outlined a plan Monday to deploy an international force, possibly led by NATO, in a buffer zone just inside Lebanon for 60 to 90 days, after which it would expand its mission to help the Lebanese army regain control of the south, Lebanese and U.S. officials said.

The force would also help train the army, which according to U.S. officials now has neither the will nor the means to disarm Hezbollah, Lebanon's last private militia.

But Rice's plan to end the conflict, prop up the Lebanese government and weaken Hezbollah was greeted with skepticism by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, as well as Lebanon's top elected Shiite official and other leaders. Siniora and the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, a Shiite with close ties to Hezbollah, warned that Hezbollah was unlikely to accept any foreign military presence in its traditional stronghold in heavily Shiite southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has already rejected calls to disarm.

Rice released her proposal, the first major U.S. diplomatic move since the crisis began, as Israeli tanks and troops pushed about a half-mile farther inside south Lebanon on Monday. They met stiff resistance from entrenched Hezbollah fighters around the town of Bint Jbeil, which is roughly two miles inside the border. Meanwhile, Hezbollah fired 80 rockets into northern Israel, wounding more than 20 civilians, two of them seriously, according to Israeli military officials.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed and 14 others were wounded in the fighting. Israeli military officials said they are attempting to secure a roughly 15-square-mile region that they describe as a center of Hezbollah operations. Hezbollah has killed 24 Israeli soldiers and 17 civilians since the crisis broke out 13 days ago. More than 60 soldiers have been wounded.

The Israeli air force said it struck about 70 Hezbollah targets across Lebanon Monday. Israeli strikes have killed at least 384 Lebanese, the vast majority of them civilians, during the crisis, the Associated Press reported. The news service also reported that the United Nations said four U.N. peacekeepers were wounded Monday, one of them seriously, in south Lebanon.

[Early Tuesday, the Associated Press reported, an Israeli missile struck a house in the southern Lebanon town of Nabatiyeh, killing seven people and wounding one, hospital and security officials said.]

In Beirut, U.S. officials said that Siniora promised to look more fully at Rice's plan and explore it with others in his government, chosen in elections last year. "He was receptive to our ideas. He gave us enough to keep going. There were no show-stoppers," said a U.S. official traveling with Rice. "We came away convinced that Siniora and the U.S. are on the same page, working toward the same ends."

But U.S. officials also conceded that Lebanon's weak government also faces its own heavy lifting. After flying in by military helicopter from Cyprus, Rice praised Siniora for his "courage and steadfastness."

On the first leg of her diplomatic effort, Rice focused heavily on humanitarian issues. She announced that the U.S. government is pledging $30 million in aid as part of a new international drive to raise $150 million for Lebanon. The U.S. aid will come largely in the form of goods, including 100,000 medical kits, 20,000 blankets and 2,000 plastic sheets that the U.S. military will begin delivering Tuesday.

But Siniora pressed Rice for an immediate cease-fire. The United States is coming under growing Arab and European pressure because of the humanitarian crisis, with about 750,000 displaced people in Lebanon, a country of 4 million people.

The sequence of next steps is also becoming an issue, U.S. officials said. Arab demands have focused on first achieving an immediate cease-fire, before considering other measures such as arrangements to disarm Hezbollah and release two Israeli soldiers taken captive by Hezbollah on July 12 in an incident that sparked the crisis. The Bush administration has backed Israel's campaign to cripple the Shiite militia, which has fired more than 1,000 rockets into Israel, and the United States and Israel are demanding the immediate release of the Israeli soldiers.

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