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Lebanese Tell Rice Bluntly That U.S. Must Step Up

Times Staff Writers

As Israeli troops drove deeper into southern Lebanon on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew into Beirut for a five-hour surprise visit with Lebanese leaders, who expressed growing frustration over the U.S. role in the conflict.

Rice, who later flew to Jerusalem, told reporters that she began her Mideast trip in Beirut “because I’m deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they’re enduring. President Bush wanted me to make this the first stop.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other senior officials made it clear to Rice that they wanted an immediate cease-fire and expressed dismay with what they saw as America’s implicit endorsement of Israel’s continued bombardment of Hezbollah targets around the country, Lebanese officials said.

Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Muslim group, controls the southern part of Lebanon, where it has been launching missiles into northern Israel.

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The secretary of State had said before the trip that she wanted to create conditions for a sustainable cease-fire. The 13-day conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 400 Lebanese and at least 41 Israelis.

Israeli troops were encountering heavy resistance as they closed in on a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon; at least four Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting and 15 others wounded.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, shelling killed six people and injured several others.

Israel has sent about 3,000 troops to the border region to drive Hezbollah from a six-mile swath of arid hills and stony valleys that Hezbollah militants have been using to launch rockets throughout the Galilee region. Hezbollah fired more than 80 rockets Monday onto a number of Israeli communities, including Kiryat Shemona and Safat in the northern Galilee area and the port of Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea.

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The military reported that at least one person was seriously injured in the barrages.

Monday’s fighting also saw Israel’s first capture of prisoners -- two Hezbollah guerrillas seized near the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, military sources said. Israel may be able to use the prisoners as leverage in any swap involving its own soldiers. The current fighting began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight troops in a cross-border raid July 12.

Two convoys carrying generators for hospitals, food and medical supplies left Beirut on Monday for the besieged southern city of Tyre and the town of Marjayoun, although Israel had yet to announce a safe route into the region for relief aid.

Rice’s visit to Beirut, a city still under intermittent Israeli fire, was intended to show U.S. support for the fragile Lebanese government. The Bush administration would like to see the government gain the strength to disarm Hezbollah, which holds two Cabinet ministries and 14 seats in parliament.

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The show of concern for the Lebanese comes at a time when many ordinary Arabs are siding with Hezbollah, and some allied Arab governments are nervous about doing business with a U.S. leadership that appears to have given Israel a green light for military operations.

In London, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki broke ranks with his U.S. and British allies and warned that the continued international tolerance of civilian casualties in Lebanon would spread extremism that could endanger Arab regimes throughout the Middle East.

“I am afraid there will be a great push toward fundamentalism, and also a message -- a negative one -- to all those who want to follow the course of peace,” Maliki said. “We will go back to zero -- to actions and reactions.”

For security reasons, the Rice team had concealed its intention to go to Beirut, and had announced that its first stop would be Jerusalem. Rice’s plane flew to Cyprus, where the team was carried by U.S. military helicopters to Beirut.

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There, she met with officials of all the major religious and ethnic groups, aides said.

Rice met with Siniora for two hours in downtown Beirut, thanking him for his “courage and steadfastness.” Then her motorcade rushed along the Beirut shoreline to Shiite-dominated West Beirut. There, she visited Nabih Berri, a Shiite who is speaker of the Lebanese parliament and an ally of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

Berri told Rice and her aides that they should seek to end the war with an immediate prisoner swap. Lebanese officials said Rice told him that Hezbollah first needed to release the two Israeli prisoners and withdraw its forces at least 12 miles from the Israeli-Lebanese border. U.S. officials denied that Rice made the 12-mile demand.

In addition to his connection to Hezbollah, Berri has political connections with Syria, widely seen as a potential broker to end the violence.

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On Monday evening, Rice met for dinner in Jerusalem with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister. Rice noted that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s condition had taken a turn for the worse, and said that “the prayers of the American people are with him. We pray for his full recovery.”

After consultations today with Israeli officials and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Rice is scheduled to travel to Rome for a meeting with Europeans, Arabs and other world leaders on the Middle East conflict.

David Welch, assistant U.S. secretary of State, expressed confidence in the day’s diplomacy, saying Americans were “now firmly in the picture and leading the diplomacy.”

He denied that the talks with Berri were contentious, but acknowledged that Berri was emotional in describing the damage to Lebanon during 13 days of fighting.

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Rice made few public comments during the visit to Beirut, and gave no hint of American negotiating goals. But aides said the talks were looking for an agreement that would allow world powers to help the Lebanese government suppress Hezbollah and extend its control into the south of Lebanon, where it now has no presence.

In remarks to reporters in Tel Aviv, Israel’s defense minister, Amir Peretz, said Israel was interested in diplomacy only after it achieved its military goals.

“The military moves will create the scope for the diplomatic moves,” he said. “We have no intention of allowing the diplomatic agreements to derive from weakness -- no way.”

Welch, the assistant secretary of State, said the United States intended to contribute $30 million toward an international relief fund aimed at raising between $100 million and $150 million for Lebanon. The United States is contributing medical kits for 100,000 people, 20,000 blankets and 2,000 plastic sheets.

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The focus of the Israeli offensive Monday was Bint Jbeil, a regional center of Hezbollah support about 2 1/2 miles from the border. Between 100 and 200 Hezbollah fighters were said to be there.

The Israeli casualties included two soldiers killed when their tanks were hit by Hezbollah fire and two pilots who died after their helicopter was either shot down or crashed not far from the border, an Israeli army spokesman said.

Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, head of the army’s operations branch, said Israeli forces were encountering fire from a type of antitank missile employed by Syrian forces.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said that Israel had used artillery-fired cluster munitions in populated areas of Lebanon.

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The group’s researchers said cluster munitions were used on the village of Blida on July 19, killing one person and wounding at least 12 others, including seven children.

“Cluster munitions are unacceptably inaccurate and unreliable weapons when used around civilians,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “They should never be used in populated areas.”

The Israeli army said it was checking into the group’s allegations, but added that the weapons were legal under international standards.

Richter reported while traveling with the secretary of State and Ellingwood reported from Avivim, Israel. Times staff writers J. Michael Kennedy in Beirut, Laura King in Jerusalem, Kim Murphy in London and Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Latest developments

Lebanon

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Israeli troops pushed further into southern Lebanon, taking control of a hilltop in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold 2 1/2 miles from the border. Four Israeli soldiers died in the operation. The Israeli air force struck 30 sites around towns and roads.

Israel

Hezbollah guerrillas fired more than 80 rockets on the northern Israeli communities of Kiryat Shemona, Safat, Haifa, Nahariya and Shlomi.

Gaza Strip

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Israeli attacks in the northern Gaza Strip killed six Palestinians, including two children, casting doubt on the prospects for a cease-fire.

Diplomatic efforts

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Beirut, meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who has served as a liaison with Hezbollah. Siniora told Rice he was disappointed that the United States had not called for an immediate cease-fire, and said the U.S. had implicitly supported Israel’s continued attacks in Lebanon.

Humanitarian concerns

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Two aid convoys carrying food, generators and other supplies left Beirut for the southern cities of Tyre and Marjayoun. Aid from Italy and France began moving into Beirut’s port. The U.S. pledged $30 million in aid, and the U.N. issued an emergency appeal for $150 million to help Lebanon.

Evacuations

The U.S. completed the rescue of 12,000 Americans.


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