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For Rice, a Painful 24 Hours
Rice later described the Lebanese leader, a former finance minister, as "depressed," then corrected herself and said he was "emotional." So was Rice.
Fearing the bombing would scuttle her week-long effort and trigger even deeper anger in the Middle East, the secretary huddled with senior staff members, including Welch, deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes and policy planning chief Stephen Krasner. She called President Bush -- the first of three conversations she had with him Sunday. She also called national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. She then decided to make a statement.
Appearing shaken, Rice spoke shortly after noon. "I am deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life in the bombing in Lebanon this morning," she said. "Too many innocent people -- Lebanese and Israeli -- have suffered. Too many people have lost their lives."
Normally stoic and increasingly forceful in her public briefings in recent months, Rice acknowledged that emotions were running "understandably high." She described the consequences of Israel's attack as "awful" and noted that she was "saddened" that the site was also the place where dozens of civilians had died in an Israeli attack a decade ago. "It's time to get to a cease-fire," she said.
But Rice also denied that the United States bore any responsibility for not demanding an immediate cease-fire when most European and Arab allies did so several days ago. The administration, she said, was working harder than any other party to stop the violence. "We are making real progress on a political framework and believe the parties are coming together on this aspect," she told reporters. "We are already doing really what is at the human limitation to try to get to an end of this conflict."
What she did not yet say was that she was abandoning her diplomatic mission in the region -- and going home Monday. Just after 3 p.m., reporters traveling with Rice were told she would give a brief statement Monday morning and then they would all leave.
Rice spent the afternoon making more calls -- to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Israeli officials, senior State Department staff, and Bush again. At least twice during the afternoon, two of Olmert's advisers -- Dov Weisglass and Shalom Tourgeman -- got back to Rice to say Hezbollah had deployed missiles near the sites that had been attacked, according to U.S. officials.
At 5:30 p.m., Rice went back to see Olmert. They met for roughly an hour and a half. U.S. officials refused to disclose the outcome. Rice had dinner with the Israeli foreign minister -- with whom she had breakfasted -- and then talked to Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, co-host of a conference on Lebanon in Rome on Wednesday.
At 8:15 p.m., two senior administration officials came to the press room. "It's easy to be frustrated in a situation like this," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Now the question is, how do we compose this in a manner that can move things forward toward the goals we always set before?"
The 24-hour period ended -- and then the situation started to turn again.
About midnight Sunday, State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli summoned Rice's small press corps. "Israel has agreed to a 48-hour suspension of aerial activity in south Lebanon while it investigates today's tragic incident in Qana," he announced. "During this time, Israel will coordinate with the United Nations to allow a 24-hour period of safe passage for all residents of south Lebanon who wish to leave. The United States welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help to relieve the suffering of the children and families of south Lebanon."