By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 29, 2006; A01
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.
"Nobody wants to stop," said a senior European envoy who spoke anonymously because of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy. "We haven't reached the peak of hostilities, and until then it'll be difficult to move into the diplomatic work."
Moreover, there were signs yesterday that the Lebanese government may be working at cross purposes, with officials there joining Hezbollah in announcing a peace proposal that calls for an immediate cease-fire, followed swiftly by a prisoner exchange and reinforcement of U.N. troops along the embattled border.
But in Washington, U.S. officials were hopeful they finally had a framework that could lead to a durable end to violence that has seen hundreds of civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of people displaced in southern Lebanon.
The basic aim of the U.S.-British plan is to extend the authority of the Beirut government throughout Lebanon for the first time since civil war broke out in 1975, reinforcing the Lebanese military with international military trainers, deploying an international force and disarming Hezbollah. Still unanswered, however, are the questions about how to do it, when and with what foreign troops -- issues that will be the subject of negotiations in the Middle East and at the United Nations next week.
One of the biggest questions is whether Hezbollah, which has been firing hundreds of missiles into Israel, would go along with the ideas being promoted by Bush and Blair, especially since the movement has been winning praise in the Arab world for the perception that it is standing up to Israel and the United States.
Annan and U.S. officials made it plain they have no expectation that an international force would fight its way into Lebanon and forcibly disarm Hezbollah. Annan said that the "cardinal principle" driving the debate on a new force is that its primary role would be in supporting the Lebanese authorities, a point Bush also made yesterday.
Thus the plan would ultimately rest on Hezbollah giving up its role as a resistance group and agreeing to focus solely on the political process, a stand it has previously refused to make. Many Middle East experts are doubtful this will happen, and administration officials conceded it is an obstacle.
"Hezbollah can accept a cease-fire, but I don't think it can accept those conditions," said Martin S. Indyk, a Clinton administration official who now heads the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
But administration officials emphasized that Hezbollah, and its patrons in Iran and Syria, could be pressured to go along with the new framework under the threat of international isolation. Referring to Hezbollah, one senior administration official said: "They are taking heavy losses, as much as everybody is saying they are not. We do believe that if we can keep momentum towards this framework, their options will continue to run out."
At the news conference, Bush and Blair issued sharp warnings to Syria and Iran, with Bush saying bluntly: "My message to Syria is become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace." Aides said both leaders see the hostilities as part of a larger struggle between Iran and Syria and the West and its more moderate Arab allies.
"We don't consider this just to be a border war between Israel and Hezbollah, a conflict that has been going on since 1982," said Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns. "What this really is is an attempt by Iran and Syria to destabilize the Middle East, to challenge democratic governments and to disrupt our efforts to bring stability and peace to the region."
Another question is the composition of the multinational force. France, Italy, Turkey and other countries have expressed interest in participating in a multinational force, but officials said that no government is likely to make a formal commitment until it knows its precise mandate. U.S. officials do not anticipate American soldiers being involved.
One U.N. diplomat said it is unlikely that Monday's meeting, which will be hosted by the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, will generate any firm offers to participate in the force.
Wright reported from Kuala Lumpur. Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.