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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Syria Seeks Cease-Fire Before Talks

July 31, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — Amid bitter condemnation across the Arab world for the Israeli attack that killed as many as 56 villagers in the Lebanese town of Qana, Syria said Sunday that it would insist on an "unconditional" cease-fire and that it remained opposed to the deployment of any foreign troops to end the fighting in southern Lebanon.

"Before everything, a cease-fire. Stop the war. Without any condition. Then we will talk about the exchange of prisoners, then we will talk about the whole peace process of the region," Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said in an interview, echoing the increasingly urgent call of Arab leaders for an end to the violence.

Bilal, who spoke before the announcement of a two-day halt to airstrikes in southern Lebanon, also decried a proposal by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for an international force to secure the peace in southern Lebanon. "We do not want any foreigner to occupy our territories like in Iraq, like in Palestine, like in Lebanon. No to such conditions! ... Neither Tony Blair nor George Bush can decide our destiny and our life."

In a region already deeply troubled by more than two weeks of fighting in Lebanon, Sunday's predawn attack in Qana touched a raw new nerve, sending furious crowds into the streets of Cairo, Beirut and Gaza City and prompting Arab leaders who have been the strongest backers of peace with Israel to issue statements of shaken outrage.

In Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, dozens of opposition lawmakers joined hundreds of protesters in the streets of Cairo, calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and to "liquidate Zionists."

"We are all with the resistance," their banners said.

President Hosni Mubarak said his nation "expresses its profound alarm and its condemnation of the irresponsible Israeli bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana, which resulted in innocent casualties, mostly women and children."

In Jordan, King Abdullah II called on the international community to "assume its responsibilities" and find a quick solution to the crisis. "This is a horrible crime committed by the Israeli forces," the king said.

In Iraq, militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr ordered his followers to draw depictions of the U.S. and Israeli flags on the streets and trample them to protest the bombing.

Syria, which has been one of Hezbollah's strongest political backers, was especially vehement in its reaction. President Bashar Assad called it a "massacre" that "shows the barbarity of this aggressive entity. It constitutes state terrorism committed in front of the eyes and ears of the world."

Bilal, the information minister, could hardly stay seated he was so furious. His answers continually escalated in volume into tirades. He waved faxes wildly in the air with statements of similar outrage from leaders around the world. "Israel is like a monster who would like to absorb or to drink more and more blood of children, of women," he said. "This is a scandal -- a crime against humanity."

He barely grunted when a reporter mentioned that Hezbollah, Syria's ally in Lebanon, has fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities, some of which have killed civilians, and denied as "completely untrue" Israel's claim that a rocket that hit the town of Afula on Saturday was Syrian-made.

Israel issued a statement expressing deep sorrow and said the airstrikes were in response to Hezbollah rocket fire emanating nearby.

But the extent to which the new violence has heightened Arab anger and sentiment against both Israel and the U.S. was also evident in the streets of Damascus, the Syrian capital, where there was talk of little but Qana in the markets, in hotel lobbies, in taxis and offices all over town. Hundreds of people gathered at the tomb of the Crusades-era Muslim warrior Saladin.

Several T-shirts bore the image of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader whom many here have begun to compare to Saladin.

"What's happening now will not finish the issue, and will never help, neither the Israelis nor the Americans. To the contrary, they're creating stronger and stronger opposition, and more and more hatred," said Hassan Zahabi, a merchant near the tomb. "Those who have always liked America are changing their minds, because they are seeing a completely different face of America."

Bilal repeated Syria's warning that it would be forced to enter the war if Israeli troops entered Lebanon near the Syrian border, which was closed Saturday on the main Beirut-to-Damascus highway after an Israeli airstrike just on the Lebanese side.

"Can you imagine how many kilometers from the border is Damascus? It is 20 kilometers [12 1/2 miles]," he said. "In such an instance, do you think Syria will stand there with its arms crossed? Do you think we could see the Israeli tanks 20 kilometers from here, and Syria stays quiet? It would be a matter of national defense."

In addition, he said Syria would be opposed to foreign troops in Lebanon as part of any peacekeeping force.

However, he reiterated that Syria was prepared to engage in dialogue with the U.S. and others to achieve a peace settlement once a cease-fire was in place. He did not rule out that eventual disarmament of Hezbollah as called for under U.N. Resolution 1559 could be part of the talks.

"When 1559 invited us to withdraw from Lebanon, we did it 100%. We have nobody in Lebanon, neither military nor intelligence nor anything," he said.

"Hezbollah is Lebanese fabric. Hezbollah has its members in the Lebanese parliament. Hezbollah has its own ministers in the Cabinet. For that, you have to ask the Lebanese government," he said. "We are Syrians. They are Lebanese. And we respect the sovereignty of Lebanon."

*

Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf, Iraq, and Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed in Cairo contributed to this report.

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