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Middle East: Rice Begins Talks With Surprise Stop In Lebanon

Beirut residents seeking to evacuate on July 24 (epa) PRAGUE, July 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has arrived on a previously unannounced visit to Lebanon today and was due in Israel later for talks on resolving the broadening conflict with Hizballah.

Rice says the United States believes a cease-fire for Lebanon is "urgent," but cannot happen until conditions are right. Washington rejects the imposition of an unconditional, immediate cessation of hostilities, despite the mounting civilian toll.

Fighting On The Border

As Rice arrived by helicopter in Beirut, missile strikes continued on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

There was also heavy fighting on the ground in southern Lebanon, as Israeli troops fought for control of the strategic town of Bint Jbail, a reputed Hizballah base.

Rice’s visit has been eagerly anticipated, as Lebanese authorities and many regional states increase their calls for an immediate cease-fire in the conflict that has already killed more than 400 people and displaced over 500,000.

"It's been over several days now," UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told reporters as he toured bombed-out neighborhoods in southern Beirut on July 23." It's between half a million and 1 million people in desperate need of international assistance. There are wounded who do not get sufficient treatment. There are people who do not have safe drinking water. There are first and foremost, tens of thousands of people who are now being besieged or who are now being in areas, which are in crossfire really. Where it's a particular worry is for this part of Beirut and the southern part of the country."

Washington Opposes Temporary Solutions

Jan Egeland speaking to reporters in Beirut on July 23 (epa)

But unlike her European counterparts, Rice has repeatedly stressed that the United States does not want to see a cease-fire at any price, especially if it is only a temporary solution.

The United States says it favors a comprehensive solution that ensures Hizballah is no longer able to aim its rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon.

Israel says it seeks the same thing.

Officials in Jerusalem, including Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, announced on July 23 that Israel is prepared to accept foreign troops on Lebanon’s southern border -- possibly from NATO or the EU -- as part of a deal.

"We are going to discuss with the international community the best way to support the Lebanese government," Livni said. "We believe that the responsibility [for southern Lebanon] is on the Lebanese government, but we can support some ideas of effective forces that will help the Lebanese government in full implementation of the statements and the [UN] resolution in order to dismantle Hizballah, to take them out of the southern part of Lebanon and prevent rearming of Hizballah in the future."

That is a change from past policy for Israel and will undoubtedly be one of the issues Rice discusses during her visit. But there is a lot of skepticism in Jerusalem about what an international force could accomplish.

Stopping Hizballah

"Israel has usually been against international forces, taking into consideration the difficulties and the failures of such forces," says political scientist Efraim Inbar. "We should remember that nowadays, there is an international force under the auspices of the UN in southern Lebanon and it's totally ineffective. It is not clear how this type of force would be able to help disarm Hizballah or to stop the supplies of missiles to Hizballah. But this is probably one of the issues they'll be discussing."

There has been much speculation that one reason Rice delayed her visit to the region was to give Israel extra time to cripple Hizballah.

But so far that hasn’t happened. On July 22, Israel was hit by a record number of Hizballah missiles -- some 160 -- indicating the Shi'ite militants continue to operate at strength.

Inbar says it has become clear that Israel will only be able to achieve its aim of pushing back Hizballah from the border through a ground campaign.

"I think that to some extent, the emphasis on air power didn't meet the expectations of the Israelis," Inbar says. "They hoped that much could be done with the air force only and they [later] realized that they had to introduce ground forces."

It’s been slow going for Israeli soldiers, who have incurred mounting casualties during their clashes inside Lebanon.

Looking At Syria

Rice faces a difficult balancing act. The Bush administration appears to believe the current conflict offers a unique opportunity to weaken Hizballah -- and its Iranian and Syrian backers.

Rice speaking to reporters in Washington on July 21 (epa)

But as calls mount for a cease-fire throughout Europe and the Arab world and civilian casualties escalate, Washington finds itself increasingly isolated. It may have to lean on Israel to curtail its operation soon.

But, Inbar believes that unless Hizballah is somehow forced to stop its rocket attacks, Israel will not lay down its arms, even if Washington pressures it.

"If there is a continuation of this missile barrage on Israel, in which over a million people live in shelters and a large part of the Israeli economy is paralyzed, I don't think that Israel will go for a unilateral cease-fire," he said.

Syria may hold the key. Reports from Washington, where senior Egyptian and Saudi emissaries met White House officials in recent days -- including Rice -- indicate that is the message the Arabs delivered.

If Syria can be persuaded to abandon its alliance with Iran, Arab leaders seem to feel, Hizballah could be neutralized and the conflict with Israel resolved.

Rice has hinted the United States may be considering the idea. But that too, won’t be easy.

Nevertheless, Rice, when quizzed, reminded journalists that Washington maintains diplomatic relations with Damascus and that dialogue is possible, unlike with Tehran.

Rice is due to meet in Rome with European and Arab officials on July 26 before flying to Malaysia for talks on North Korea -- another hot spot.

She has said she may return to the Middle East after that, as events warrant.