METULA, Israel—Thousands of Israeli troops fanned out across southern Lebanon on Tuesday as the military stepped up its efforts to uproot Hezbollah fighters from the border and set the stage for an international peacekeeping force to take control of the war-ravaged area.
As diplomats struggled to come up with a plan to end the fighting, Israeli soldiers launched a new phase of the operation intended to neutralize Hezbollah's ability to fire rockets into northern Israel by forcing the militants to retreat more than 18 miles into Lebanon.
There also were reports early Wednesday that Israeli commandos were battling Hezbollah fighters around a hospital near Baalbek in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The city has served as a base for the militant Islamic organization, for the Syrian Army when it occupied Lebanon and for members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps who've helped train and equip Hezbollah.
The Israeli advance could hobble Hezbollah and sever its main supply line from Iran and Syria, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conceded Tuesday for the first time that the campaign might fall short of meeting demands that the militant group be quickly disarmed.
"This action cannot in any way be judged by the number of missiles launched against us or their range," Olmert said in a speech to graduates of Israel's National Security College near Tel Aviv. "Neither the defense minister, nor I, nor the government, nor the military leadership promised that, at the end of the operation, there would be no missiles in range of Israel."
Although U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is working with the United Nations and other world leaders to fashion a cease-fire, Israel appears intent on continuing its military operation for days, if not weeks.
Rice on Tuesday wouldn't predict that the diplomacy will be wrapped up this week, but for the first time she appeared to put a timeline on a cease-fire. "We are talking days, not weeks before we are able to get a cease-fire," she said on PBS' NewsHour.
A 48-hour lull in most Israeli air strikes on Lebanese towns and cities is expected to end Wednesday. That's likely to be followed by resumption of Hezbollah rocket attacks, which came to an abrupt halt after Israel enacted the temporary halt to most air strikes.
Near the border, Brig. Gen. Shuki Shahar, the deputy chief of the military's Northern Command, said that Israeli ground troops and air forces controlled the Litani River—about 18 miles from Lebanon's border with Israel.
Until 2000, the river was the northern boundary of Israeli-occupied Lebanon. It could provide a launching point for a wider military operation if Israel decides to push towards Beirut.
Over the coming days, Israeli forces will work to rout Hezbollah fighters from the area south of the river, Shahar said.
"The farther north we can push them, the fewer Israeli citizens they can put under threat with these rockets," he said.
Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, also with Israel's Northern Command, said that seizing control of the area could take a week, and that securing it "could take from three to eight weeks, depending on the size of the area."
Three Israeli soldiers were killed Tuesday in the expanded fighting, bringing the military death toll for the nation to 36, with more than 110 wounded.
Although Olmert said Tuesday that Israel was "winning the war," so far his nation has little to show for its air strikes that have decimated Lebanese towns, destroyed roads, bridges and airports, and killed more than 800 people, most of them civilians.
The operation was dealt a moral and political blow on Sunday by an Israeli air strike in Qana that killed at least 57 people, most of them young children. The attack generated worldwide condemnation and prompted the temporary halt to Israeli air strikes.
"Any summation of the conflict until the suspension of aerial attacks agreed upon by Israel late Sunday night as a result of the tragic incident in Qana could only include that management of the war has been incompetent," wrote military analyst Ze'ev Schiff in a front-page analysis for Tuesday's Haaretz newspaper.
Israeli leaders say that as many as 300 Hezbollah fighters have been killed and that the air strikes have destroyed more than two-thirds of the militant group's long range rocket launchers, as well as half of its shorter-range Katyusha launchers.
The strikes, however, haven't curtailed the Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel that have killed 18 people and injured more than 400. On Sunday, the day Israel hit Qana, Hezbollah responded with its largest single-day barrage: More than 150 rockets hit northern Israel.
Now, with pressure building for a cease-fire and the United Nations meeting to discuss the issue on Thursday, Israeli forces are trying to make more durable gains.
Israel says it supports plans to create a new multi-national peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon. There's broad disagreement, however, about how much power such a force would have to fight Hezbollah and prevent it from getting more rockets from Syria and Iran.
There also is disagreement among the major parties about when a cease-fire should take effect. France, which is likely to command any new U.N. force in Lebanon, is pushing for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by a long-term solution. The United States and Israel want the cease-fire to coincide with a new political framework.
In the meantime, Israel is expected to press ahead with its military campaign. After two days of ensuring humanitarian groups safe passage into southern Lebanon, Israel is expected to revisit the issue on Wednesday, said Shahar.
On the second day of the limited air campaign, the Red Cross gained access to Lebanese towns along the Israeli border and recovered more than 70 bodies, government officials said.
The death toll in Lebanon stands at 828, with some 200 bodies yet to be recovered, according to the country's government. The United Nations and Save the Children estimate that more than a third of those killed are children younger than 12. Nearly 900,000 people have been forced from their homes and economic losses are now at $4 billion.
In Beirut, Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister made his first trip to Lebanon since the fighting broke out July 12 when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid.
Iran, a key Hezbollah backer, supports a peace plan put proposed by the Lebanese government that calls for an immediate cease-fire and the eventual disarmament of Hezbollah, said Mohamed Shatah, a senior adviser to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Israel and the United States accuse Iran of fueling the conflict by supporting Hezbollah. But Shatah said that Iran couldn't be ignored.
"They have an influence and it would be naive to think that they are not important" to a settlement, he said.
(McClatchy correspondents Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Beirut, Lebanon; Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington, D.C.; and Cliff Churgin contributed from Jerusalem.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060801 MIDEAST Baalbek, 20060801 Israel offensive
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