By Robin Wright and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; A01
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.
Rice told Berri that she was "deeply concerned" about the Lebanese and "what they are enduring." President Bush had personally asked her to make Lebanon the first stop of her Middle East mission, she said. But she also told Berri, whose mainstream Shiite Amal party has worked politically with Hezbollah, that "the situation on the border cannot return to what it was before July 12."
After her five-hour visit under heavy guard through a Beirut that was suddenly quiet, Rice flew back to Cyprus, then on to Israel, where she had a working dinner with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
On the battlefield, Israeli soldiers, encountering a seasoned Hezbollah guerrilla force, say they have killed dozens of gunmen fighting with guided anti-tank missiles, mortars and small arms from houses, tunnels and bunkers in the past few days.
"They're in the forests and inside hiding places in town. They hide in holes in the ground," said Lt. Shahar Mintz, 20, who serves in a tank battalion operating inside Lebanon. "They have so many places to hide from the airstrikes, so we have to send in the infantry. It can be dangerous."
Mintz spoke from Avivim, an Israeli farming community a half-mile from the hilltop Lebanese town of Maroun al-Ras, where Israel's ground operation has focused in recent days. Busloads of soldiers mustered in the mostly abandoned town, painting their faces green and black before walking into Lebanon.
Columns of four to five tanks waited to be sent across the border. At least a dozen ambulances awaited the wounded. Israeli unmanned drone aircraft buzzed overhead, and a steady pounding of air and artillery strikes sounded throughout the day, leaving Maroun al-Ras shrouded in a brown-gray fog of smoke and dust.
On Israel's second front, the Gaza Strip, where the governing Hamas movement's military wing and two smaller armed groups continue holding an Israeli soldier captured in a June 25 raid on an army post just outside Gaza, at least six Palestinians died in Israeli artillery strikes near the town of Beit Lahiya. Palestinian hospital officials said the dead included a 50-year-old woman, her 11-year-old grandson and a 4-year-old girl.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said 20 rockets were launched from Gaza in the last two days, including eight on Monday from the area that Israeli forces were targeting. In the incident that killed the girl, the spokeswoman said Israeli forces were not aiming at residential buildings "but one of our shells misfired, and it hit closer to the civilian population than it was aimed."
The military was also investigating the crash of an Apache Longbow helicopter in Israel's northern Galilee region that had been flying support operations for troops on the edge of Bint Jbeil. Israeli military officials said two crew members died in the crash.
While leaving open the possibility the helicopter could have been damaged by Hezbollah ground fire, Israeli military officials said it was more likely that a technical malfunction caused the crash, the second by a U.S.-made Apache here in the past week.
"This battle against Hezbollah is going to last," Avi Dichter, Israel's public security minister, told a small group of reporters in Jerusalem. "We're not in any hurry."
But Dichter also acknowledged that the military operation would likely make way for diplomacy in the coming days.
"The target is not to dismantle totally Hezbollah from its missiles capability -- that's not the mission," Dichter said. "But we know that we, Israel, by our means, and the guidelines we gave to the [military], can't drive Hezbollah from its means of warfare."
Lebanese medics spoke about a weekend incident that highlighted what they said was Israel's indiscriminant targeting in the south.
On Saturday, Israeli forces struck two ambulances outside the town of Qana, injuring six Red Cross volunteer medics as well as the three wounded passengers they were carrying, Red Cross medics said. The ambulances were flashing blue lights and had illuminated the Red Cross flag, the medics said.
"I fell down," said Qassem Shalaan, 28, one of the wounded medics, who was standing about three feet from the first ambulance when it was struck. "I opened my eyes to make sure I could still see, then I checked my body and I was okay."
He had three stitches below his lip and cuts on his leg. His eardrums were bruised.
As the medics in the other ambulance called for help, a second missile hit it less than a minute later, wounding the three other medics, they said.
The medics, all wearing flak jackets and helmets, kept working despite their injuries. They took the wounded -- a 14-year-old boy, his father and his grandmother -- into a nearby home. There, in the basement, they used their shirts as bandages amid shelling that lasted throughout their two-hour wait for help.
"I'll speak for myself, but I feel like I have no cover even as a Red Cross worker," Shalaan said from his hospital bed.
By evening, Sami Yazbak, head of the Red Cross in Tyre, said he had received an Israeli apology and an assurance they would not be attacked again. Shaalan returned to the Red Cross office, a small, six-room compound a short way from the Mediterranean coast. He had taken off his bandages before seeing his mother so as not to worry her.
Wilson reported from Jerusalem. Correspondents Anthony Shadid in Tyre, Edward Cody in Beirut, Jonathan Finer in Avivim and John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.