Bush, Blair Seek U.N. Force In South Lebanon as Buffer

After meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, President Bush said he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to the Middle East.
After meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, President Bush said he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to the Middle East. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 29, 2006

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed yesterday to seek a U.N. resolution next week calling for the creation of a multinational force that would help the Lebanese government extend control of the country to areas dominated by Hezbollah guerrillas.

The resolution would also call for a cessation of hostilities in Lebanon, but Bush and Blair made it clear they were not talking about the kind of immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah being promoted by other world leaders.

As U.S. officials and foreign diplomats described the plan, the halt in fighting would be conditioned on a broader political settlement in which the international force would help the Lebanese government police the south and maintain a buffer zone separating Hezbollah from Israel, if not disarm the militant group.

After a meeting with Blair at the White House, Bush said he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to the Middle East this weekend to negotiate the details of a resolution that he said could help achieve "lasting peace and stability" for Israel and Lebanon. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has scheduled a meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday to press governments to participate in a multinational force.

"This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East," Bush said in an appearance with Blair in the East Room. "Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for a broader change in the region."

Blair said he thinks the violence could end as soon as a U.N. resolution is approved, possibly as early as next week. "We want to see it happen as quickly as possible, but the conditions have got to be in place to allow it to happen," he said.

The appearance had the effect of once more uniting Bush and Blair in a partnership against allies on a sensitive Middle East issue. Other world leaders are looking for more aggressive pressure on Israel to halt the offensive against Hezbollah that it launched after the militant group staged a cross-border raid last month, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing eight others.

Blair has been calling almost from the beginning of the crisis for a multinational force to help police southern Lebanon. U.S. officials -- mindful of the political difficulties the situation is creating for Blair at home -- said the prime minister has been influential in helping to convince the president that the idea makes sense as a way of helping the Lebanese government reestablish authority.

At the news conference yesterday, Blair put little daylight between himself and Bush, casting Hezbollah as the instigator of the crisis and coming to the president's defense -- with a passionate plea to look at the larger stakes -- when Bush was questioned about declining U.S. clout in the world. Blair said the growing violence in the Middle East is not a function of declining U.S. influence but a global movement of Islamic radicals determined to subvert democracy in that region and elsewhere.

"You're up against an ideology that's prepared to use any means at all, including killing any number of wholly innocent people," Blair said.

Bush seemed a bit subdued during the news conference, although he opened the session with a playful gesture, tapping on his microphone and telling Blair, "You share with me your perspective -- and you let me know when the microphone is on." That was a reference to their last meeting at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, when an open mike captured banter between the two that rekindled criticism in Britain that Blair is too deferential to Bush.

Despite the new diplomatic efforts announced yesterday, senior European envoys said there are few prospects for an imminent end to hostilities because the Israeli government has overwhelming support among its own people for airstrikes on Lebanon, and Hezbollah has shown no interest in releasing the two kidnapped Israelis or ending its rocket barrages of Israel.

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