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Bush, Blair to Seek U.N. Force on Lebanon Border

The two leaders refuse to press for an immediate cease-fire as long as Hezbollah is armed, despite pressure from Arabs and Europeans.

July 29, 2006|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With pressure mounting for an end to the violence between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday that they would call for a United Nations resolution next week designed to stop the fighting and establish an international stabilizing force on the border.

But both leaders again refused to press for a cease-fire until a process was in place to disarm Hezbollah, a position that in effect allows Israel to continue its bombing campaign against the militant group in Lebanon.

Bush and Blair spoke at the White House as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed back to the Middle East with instructions to broker a U.N. deal to end a conflict that has threatened the U.S. and British foreign policy agenda of spreading democracy and exposed their diminished clout in the region.

In a remark that was notable for its conciliatory tone, Bush invited Syria to "become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace."

The president's comment stood in marked contrast to his stronger and more frequent condemnations of Iran -- and to his off-the-cuff remark picked up by a live microphone this month in which he used an expletive to describe Syria's role.

But White House officials said later there was no softening in the U.S. belief that Syria backs Hezbollah and supports terrorism. Nor was there any indication that the United States was ready to engage Damascus directly.

An administration official said Rice had no intention of going to Syria.

Bush and Blair's unified front underscored their belief that the conflict engulfing Israel, Hezbollah and Lebanon fits into a broader struggle between civilized countries and terrorists. It also made it clear that they had no intention of bowing to growing pressure from the Arab world and much of Europe to call for an immediate cease-fire.

"It's really important for people to understand that terrorists are trying to stop the advance of freedom, and therefore, it's essential that we do what's right and not necessarily what appears to be immediately popular," Bush said.

Bush acknowledged that this is a "moment of intense conflict in the Middle East."

"Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for a broader change in the region," he said.

The president and Blair sought to portray Hezbollah as part of a broader array of terrorist organizations trying to curb democratic reforms in the region, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories and insurgents battling the U.S. and its allies in Iraq.

"Now is the time for the free world to work to create the conditions so that people everywhere can have hope," Bush said, later adding, "The stakes are larger than just Lebanon."

The leaders' harmony served to rebut speculation that Blair had come to Washington to urge Bush to call on Israel to curb its attacks in Lebanon.

Rice's first trip to the region this week ended without agreements and with White House officials saying that she probably would not return without a concrete offering.

But Bush and Blair on Friday appeared more willing to express confidence that a diplomatic solution was near, and they hinted strongly that Rice's trip starting today would be more fruitful.

"She will have with her the package of proposals in order to get agreement both from the government of Israel and the government of Lebanon on what is necessary to happen in order for this crisis to stop," Blair said.

Bush said Rice's instructions were to "work with Israel and Lebanon ... to come up with an acceptable U.N. Security Council resolution that we can table next week."

"I could have called her back here and could have sat around, visited and talked," the president said. "But I thought it was important for her to go back to the region to work on a United Nations Security Council resolution."

Bush declined to offer specifics on the makeup of an international force, though other officials have said it probably would consist of troops from countries such as Turkey, Italy and France. He and Blair said that the force would serve to strengthen Lebanon's democratically elected government, and that the U.S. and other countries would devote resources to reconstructing that country.

"We want a Lebanon free of militias and foreign interference, and a Lebanon that governs its own destiny," he said, saying that the negotiations would focus on Israel and Lebanon -- not Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah is not a state. They're a supposed political party that happens to be armed," Bush said.

The U.S. and British leaders saved their harshest words for Tehran. Referring to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that sparked the conflict this month, Bush attributed Hezbollah's "unprovoked attack" on Israel to Iran seeking greater power.

"A theocracy would like to spread its influence using surrogates," Bush said.


Times staff writer Tyler Marshall contributed to this report.

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