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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Cease-Fire Efforts Stepped Up

Israel drops its insistence that Hezbollah disarm. Iran and Syria join calls to end hostilities. Britain and the U.N. propose a peacekeeping force.

July 18, 2006|Laura King and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

BEIRUT — Diplomatic efforts to end the Mideast bloodletting moved to the fore Monday, with Israel for the first time signaling willingness to accept a cease-fire based on a pullback of Hezbollah guerrillas from the volatile Lebanese frontier and the release of two captured soldiers.

Britain and the United Nations called for deployment of a peacekeeping force, a proposal Israel said would not stop Hezbollah attacks but would hamper the Jewish state's ability to strike back.

Even Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's primary supporters, appeared to join those searching for a way out of the raging 6-day-old battle between Israeli forces and the Shiite Muslim group that has left Lebanon's infrastructure in ruins and terrorized Israelis living under a hail of rocket fire.

The Tehran government called for a cease-fire, followed by a prisoner exchange, and Syria also promised to aid mediation efforts.

More than 200 Lebanese, almost all civilians, have died, along with 24 Israelis, half of them soldiers, since the fighting flared Wednesday. Monday's salvos included dozens of Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli communities, including the port city of Haifa, and Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 48 people across Lebanon.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese and foreign residents have fled to Syria and elsewhere, while U.S. officials began preparations for the first large-scale evacuation of American citizens today.

Adding impetus to efforts to resolve the crisis, the Bush administration announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to the region in coming days, though without specifying a date.

Israel's apparent softening of its stance on truce terms, which included dropping a demand that Hezbollah be disarmed and dismantled, was conveyed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to his Italian counterpart, Romano Prodi, senior aides to Olmert said. But Israel is insisting that the guerrillas pull back about 20 miles from the frontier.

Israel was cool to the idea of an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to bolster what has been a small and largely ineffectual United Nations contingent that Israel says has done little or nothing to challenge Hezbollah's control of the border zone. And there was widespread skepticism in Lebanon that Hezbollah, or Party of God, would agree to Israel's cease-fire conditions.

The Shiite militia has insisted that it will only consider direct negotiations with the Jewish state, and that it will only release the Israeli soldiers in exchange for Lebanese and other Arab prisoners being held by Israel.

Moreover, few Lebanese believe that Hezbollah would ever abandon the Israeli border unless the guerrillas were forced out militarily.

Israel and the Bush administration continued to lay full blame for the confrontation on Hezbollah and its patrons -- with President Bush, in an unscripted declaration caught by an open microphone, using a pungent epithet to convey his conviction that Syria must be induced to rein in the Shiite Muslim militia.

Speaking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a luncheon at the Group of 8 summit outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Bush asserted that "what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

It was Blair and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan who proposed the deployment of an international peacekeeping force along the Lebanese frontier -- a measure Israel characterized as premature.

"I don't think we're at that stage yet," said Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin. "We're at the stage where we want to be sure that Hezbollah is not deployed at our northern border."

The Bush administration echoed Israel's reservations that peacekeepers would be insufficient to prevent Hezbollah from continuing attacks, yet would hobble Israel in responding militarily to any provocations by the guerrilla group.

Olmert, in a speech to Israel's Knesset, or parliament, insisted that Israel would press ahead with its military campaign until the two captured Israeli soldiers were freed, rocket fire against northern Israel ended and the Lebanese army secured the frontier.

"Israel will not be held hostage by terror groups, a terror authority or by any sovereign country," the Israeli leader declared.

Lebanon has suffered mightily under Israeli airstrikes, which continued to pummel the country Monday. Fewer midday explosions were heard in Beirut than on previous days, but Israel continued to hammer roads and highway bridges, as well as Hezbollah offices and residential buildings.

Israeli warplanes struck a bridge that links the southern port city of Sidon with Beirut, killing at least 10 people who were traveling in civilian vehicles, according to Lebanese media reports.

Local news reports said nine more bodies were found in the rubble of a rescue headquarters bombed over the weekend in Tyre, bringing the death toll in that blast to 25.

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