BY SAM F. GHATTAS
The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; 8:51 PM
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, looking exhausted, defiantly vowed Wednesday that his fighters would begin firing rockets deeper into Israel, beyond the northern port of Haifa.
Nasrallah appeared to be counting on growing international anger at the two-week-old Israeli offensive and urged his people to be patient. Hundreds of Lebanese have died in Israeli attacks.
"I declare that we will enter the 'beyond Haifa' stage," the bearded and black-turbaned Shiite cleric said in a speech on Hezbollah's al-Manar television in the early hours of Wednesday. "In the new stage, our attacks will not remain limited to Haifa."
In the last two weeks, Hezbollah has rained hundreds of rockets on northern Israel, reaching targets farther south than in any previous attacks. The group has repeatedly hit the city of Haifa, the third largest in Israel.
Nasrallah's speech appeared timed to try to distract attention from a meeting in Rome later on Wednesday to discuss proposals to end the fighting that has claimed more than 400 lives. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other key Mideast players are attending.
Nasrallah appeared to mock Rice, who just concluded the first American diplomatic foray in the region since the fighting began July 12. She repeatedly said there was no place in "a new Middle East" for Hezbollah or other Islamist groups bent on Israel's destruction.
Rice also backed Israel's refusal to negotiate a quick cease-fire, claiming a lasting settlement could not be reached until Hezbollah was disarmed and unable to launch rocket attacks at Israel.
"Our steadfastness will change the regional and international reality around us. The enemy won't have a lot of time, no matter what cover the American administration is providing it," Nasrallah said in a fiery address also carried by Lebanese television stations and Arab satellite channels.
"There is no way that we can accept the imposition of any humiliating conditions on us, our people or our country ... especially after all these sacrifices. ... We are open to political discussions and solutions with flexibility, but the dignity and national interest (of Lebanon) is a red line."
That "red line" was an apparent reference to the heavy Israeli bombing and ground assaults on the country, including repeated attacks on Hezbollah-dominated regions in south Beirut and the eastern Bekaa valley near Syria.
Nasrallah claimed Israel's military offensive was linked to a U.S.-Israeli plan for "a new Middle East." He claimed Israel had been planning to attack his forces in southern Lebanon by October but lost the element of surprise and was forced to move early after his forces crossed the border into Israel and captured two soldiers on July 12. Eight Israeli soldiers died in the attack.
"In an American and Zionist assessment, there are obstacles to a new Middle East. In the new Middle East, the Palestinian cause should be liquidated," Nasrallah said.
"In the new Middle East, there is no place for any resistance movement. The resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon must be eliminated," Nasrallah added, referring to Hamas, fellow Islamic militants fighting in the Gaza Strip.
"The new Middle East means a region controlled by the U.S. administration which unilaterally runs (the region's) affairs and resources with Israel being its prime partner."
He said Israel could not win a ground war against Hezbollah.
"The goal of the incursion to prevent the rocketing of the settlements will not be achieved," he said. "The rocketing will continue no matter what the incursion is. We are ready for a ground confrontation. We will have the upper hand in a ground confrontation. We will recover any land occupied by the enemy," Nasrallah vowed.