JERUSALEM—Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared victory on Saturday after Israel announced it was withdrawing its forces from the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail where Israeli troops found unexpected difficulty in dislodging the guerrilla group from its strongholds.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev defended the decision to pull troops from Bint Jbeil, saying Israel had never intended to occupy the town, but Nasrallah's quick declaration of victory underscored the propaganda gains Hezbollah is reaping across the Muslim world as it battles Israel to a stalemate.
"The Israelis are ready to halt the aggression because they are afraid of the unknown," Nasrallah said in a speech in which he also expressed measured support for the Lebanese government's efforts to reach a peace agreement.
The comments came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Jerusalem for the second time in six days. Rice expressed modest optimism over a proposed political solution that includes deployment of a roughly 15,000-member international force to Lebanon.
On the 18th day of fighting, Hezbollah fired more than 90 rockets into northern Israel, wounding about a dozen people. Israel continued its bombing campaign, striking near the Syrian border in one instance and in another dropping bombs near a U.N. observation post. Two Indian peacekeepers were wounded in that strike, just days after another Israeli airstrike killed four U.N. observers.
Rice held a one-on-one dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but U.S. officials, saying negotiations were entering a highly sensitive phase, declined to offer word on their talks.
During a flight from Malaysia, where she had been attending a meeting of Asian foreign ministers, Rice told reporters that "there are a lot of elements that are coming together" but declined to say when she thought an agreement would be reached to end the fighting.
"These are really hard and emotional decisions for both sides under extreme pressure in a difficult set of circumstances," she said.
The conflict began when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others during a cross-border raid on July 12. Israel launched an immediate response, bombing Beirut and southern Lebanon and vowing to destroy Hezbollah militarily before it would cease fire.
But Hezbollah has continued to attack Israeli towns and cities with rocket fire and has resisted Israeli ground incursions. Last week, Israel's military suffered its worst casualties yet in fighting in and around Bint Jbail. On Friday, a Hezbollah rocket struck Afula, 30 miles south of the Lebanese border, the furthest inside Israel Hezbollah has reached.
On Saturday, Regev suggested that Israel might agree to a cease-fire before Hezbollah had been disarmed, calling a cease-fire "a catalyst" toward disarming Hezbollah.
Regev also said Israel didn't want to be drawn into reoccupying southern Lebanon, where for 18 years until they departed in 2000 Israeli troops were repeatedly targeted by Hezbollah guerrillas.
"The idea is to be as mobile as the enemy is, as fluid as the enemy is, as unpredictable as the enemy is," he said. "You can't have some sort of Israeli presence on the ground that is an invitation to a defensive strategy when you want to keep a strategy that is fluid and mobile."
So far, the fighting has killed more than 450 Lebanese, more than 40 Israelis, and displaced hundreds of thousands on each side.
The Bush administration has strongly backed Israel's offensive, apparently in hopes that it would drastically weaken Hezbollah.
But Nasrallah's popularity in the Arab world is rising, even in devastated Lebanon. On Saturday the English-language newspaper The Daily Star published the results of a poll showing that 87 percent of Lebanese supported "the resistance" against Israel.
Hezbollah, the main representative of Lebanon's Shiite Muslims and backed by Syria and Iran, has given mixed signals about whether it was willing to join a cease-fire that is supposed to lead to its eventual disarmament.
Nasrallah said he would support a peace agreement providing it met Hezbollah's conditions. Hezbollah has demanded that Israel release prisoners it is holding in return for the two captured Israeli soldiers.
Two members of Lebanon's Cabinet with close ties to Hezbollah last week endorsed Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's seven-point peace plan.
The plan calls for extending the reach of Lebanon's national army to the country's south, where Hezbollah now reigns, though it is unclear whether Hezbollah would agree in fact to disarm.
Rice, who has been criticized in some quarters for not mediating more aggressively, expressed a greater sense of urgency about achieving a cease-fire.
"Since we want an early end to the violence, it's increasingly important that we get agreement on the elements," she said.
Rice has declined to reveal the details of a proposed peace deal, but U.S. and foreign officials have suggested it includes the following:
_Agreement to fully implement U.N. Security Resolution 1559 and the 1989 Taif Accords, which call for the disarming of militias and the extension of Lebanon's sovereignty throughout the country. The Taif Accord ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
_Creation of some sort of buffer zone in south Lebanon to ensure the territory could not again be used to stage attacks on Israel.
_Deployment of an international peacekeeping force that, among other tasks, would help build up Lebanon's weak national army.
_An exchange of prisoners. Hezbollah holds the two Israeli soldiers, while Israel holds three Lebanese prisoners, according to a July 25 report by the private International Crisis Group.
_Israel's agreement to consider handing over a contested area known as Sheeba Farms, which has been claimed at times by both Lebanon and Syria. The United Nations certified that Israel fully withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.
If Rice's talks are successful, she is likely to travel to the United Nations by the middle of next week to push for the passing of a new U.N. Security Council Resolution setting in motion a cease-fire and deployment of the international force.
The force, to which several European nations have offered to contribute, is expected to number between 15,000 and 20,000, roughly the size of a U.S. Army division.
The forces could take weeks or months to deploy, but U.S. officials indicated that the first elements of the mission could deploy quickly.
Countries willing to contribute troops to the mission are due to meet Monday at the United Nations.
(Strobel reported from Jerusalem, Bengali from Beirut. McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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