KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel—Israel's military began enlisting thousands of reinforcements Friday for its campaign to rout Hezbollah guerrillas from southern Lebanon, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice downplayed any hopes that her trip to the region would lead to a quick end to the confrontation.
Israeli warplanes, artillery and special forces battered southern Lebanon in a broadening attempt to drive Hezbollah militants from the border and to create a buffer zone that would prevent the group from attacking Israel.
After 10 days of air attacks that have killed more than 350 people in Lebanon, Israel's military has begun preparing for the possibility of sending in large numbers of ground troops to prevent Hezbollah militants from returning to the border. Israel began calling up reservists Friday.
Its military and political leaders stressed that they have no immediate plans to launch a major ground invasion.
The call-up of reservists, however, fed suspicions that Israel was preparing for a broader ground operation. So far its military has staged only limited ground operations in southern Lebanon but even those have led to fierce and deadly clashes with Hezbollah, raising concerns that a wider ground offensive could be a mistake.
Israel fought a costly 18-year military campaign in Lebanon that ended in 2000, and many in Israel view that operation as their nation's Vietnam.
"We believe right now there are other means to deal with terror," Lt. Col. Oliver Rafowicz said during a briefing near the Lebanese border.
While Israel kept up its military assault, Rice made it clear that her plans to travel to the Middle East next week wouldn't lead to the immediate cease-fire sought by Lebanon and other nations.
"The goal of my trip is to work with our partners to help create conditions that can lead to a lasting and sustainable end to the violence," Rice said.
"Yet as I prepare to depart for the Middle East, I know that there are no answers that are easy, nor are there any quick fixes. I fully expect the diplomatic work for peace will be difficult."
She won't go to any Arab countries right away—Egypt reportedly balked at hosting a meeting because of public anger at the Israeli offensive—although diplomats held out the possibility that she would make stops in the Arab world at the end of the trip.
After meetings in Israel, Rice will go to Rome for an international meeting on Lebanon that will include Arab, European, Russian and U.N. diplomats. A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the participants would discuss humanitarian aid for Lebanon, World Bank assistance for its economy and help to strengthen Lebanon's army.
Rice called the crisis enveloping the region "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," reflecting the Bush administration's view that Israel's offensive can be used to curb the threat from Hezbollah, strengthen the fragile young Lebanese government and reduce the influence of Syria and Iran in the region.
The slow place of diplomatic talks has allowed Israel's military to pound Lebanon in an attempt to destabilize Hezbollah. The United States has quietly given Israel wide latitude to conduct the campaign, despite calls from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others for speedy peace talks.
Israel is looking to create a broad buffer zone in southern Lebanon where Hezbollah militants would be unable to operate and which the Lebanese military would patrol. Annan and others are trying to persuade the United States, Israel and other nations to support creating a beefed-up international force to secure the area, perhaps alongside Lebanese troops.
On Friday, Rice knocked down any talk of U.S. forces returning to Lebanon. American Marines were dispatched to Lebanon and drawn into fighting in the early 1980s. The bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 Americans in 1983.
Rice said any force would have to be big enough to ensure that Hezbollah couldn't re-emerge as a threat to Israel.
But the ongoing Israeli campaign also appeared to be destabilizing the Lebanese government. More than half a million residents have fled their homes, with more than 140,000 seeking refuge in Syria. The Israeli bombardment has devastated major roads, bridges, villages, neighborhoods and Beirut's airport. Nearly a third of the 350 people who've been killed in the attacks have been children. And Israel's attempts to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government so far have failed.
On Friday, Lebanon's culture minister, Tarek Mitri, said the Lebanese military was prepared to fight Israeli troops if they crossed into his country.
"The army did not attack Israel, but if there is a ground offensive, then orders given to the army will be to defend themselves," he said.
Despite the bombardment of Lebanon, Hezbollah continued to fire rockets into northern Israel. On Friday, nearly a dozen rockets again hit Haifa, Israel's third largest city and its major port. At least five people were injured. Other rockets sparked brush fires in northern Israel.
Since Hezbollah started the conflict July 12, Israel has been hit by about 900 missiles that have killed 15 civilians, and 19 Israeli soldiers have been killed by Hezbollah attacks.
A major demand of Israel's campaign is the unconditional return of two Israeli soldiers who were captured in the initial cross-border Hezbollah ambush.
The unofficial war with Lebanon has overshadowed Israel's other military campaign in the Gaza Strip, where soldiers have been staging a similar campaign to free a third comrade, whom Palestinian militants have held for nearly a month.
Because of the protracted operations on two fronts, Israel began to draw on its reservists, heightening concerns about a broader ground war.
Gidi Grinstein, a peace negotiator for former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said Israel should think seriously before sending ground forces into Lebanon.
"Holding on to territory in Lebanon denies Israel the international legitimacy it has had and renders us vulnerable to the kind of guerrilla war we saw before May 2000," he said.
(Nissenbaum reported from Israel, Strobel from Washington. Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Beirut, Lebanon.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060721 MIDEAST South Leb, 20060721 MIDEAST Litani and 20060721 MIDEAST pm
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