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Israel faces risks, tough decisions as 9 soldiers killed in Lebanon

JERUSALEM—The Israeli military on Wednesday suffered its heaviest losses so far in its two-week-old battle with Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, and world leaders meeting in Rome failed to respond to calls for an immediate cease-fire.

At least nine Israeli soldiers were killed in a fierce counterattack by Hezbollah fighters that underscored the challenge Israel faces in trying to remove the threat that the militant Islamic group poses to northern Israel.

As the crisis enters its third week, there's scant evidence that Israel's air and ground attacks have crippled Hezbollah and little reason to think that an international force is going to do so. That means the Israelis must decide whether to step up the pressure on the militants or to accept something that falls short of disarming Hezbollah.

After launching more than 2,000 airstrikes, Israel has sent thousands of soldiers into southern Lebanon to dislodge Hezbollah fighters and create a buffer zone. Doing so, however, could bog Israel down in fighting a longer and deadlier battle than its leaders anticipated and risk driving more of the region's Shiite Muslims into Hezbollah's arms.

The risks of getting bogged down in southern Lebanon became clearer Wednesday when nine Israeli soldiers were killed and 27 others were wounded in fierce Hezbollah counterattacks around the border town of Bint Jbail.

The confrontation in Lebanon already has claimed more than 450 lives, and with Israel bombing his country heavily every day, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora made an impassioned appeal in Rome to leaders from 20 nations.

"What future, other than fear, frustration, ruin and fanaticism, can stem from the rubble?" Saniora said. "Is the value of a human life less in Lebanon than that of other citizens? Are we children of a lesser God?"

But ending the fighting with Hezbollah still in place would hand Islamic militancy a victory and probably set the stage for the next clash.

"If Hezbollah does not experience defeat in this war, that will spell the end of Israeli deterrence against its enemies," military analyst Ze'ev Schiff wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz after Wednesday's attacks. "We did not choose this war, but we have reached a strategic crossroad."

Military hawks see the current clash as an opportunity to weaken Hezbollah, destabilize Iran and back Syria into a corner.

"We are playing with fire anyway, and sometimes you have to take risks," said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Turning up the heat on Hezbollah's patrons, Syria and Iran, could virtually eliminate any chance of getting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to pressure Syria to sever its ties with Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, and it could even spark a regional war.

"The options are not very good," said Moshe Ma'oz, a professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University. "They are between bad and worse."

Israel has reluctantly accepted the idea, but not the specifics, of an international force and has sent tanks and soldiers to drive Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon in an effort to pave the way for foreign troops.

Israel sought to prevent, or at least delay, the ground operation to avoid being drawn back into what would be its third occupation of Lebanon. Six years ago, it unceremoniously pulled out of Lebanon after an unsuccessful 18-year military campaign to rout the militant groups vying for power there.

Israel is trying to push Hezbollah out of at least a mile-deep swath of Lebanon. That might prevent the militants from staging border attacks, but it would do virtually nothing to prevent rocket attacks on Israel, since rockets have a longer range. It would increase the risk to Israeli soldiers, who'd be forced to hold onto the territory.

The dangers of even a limited effort to fight Hezbollah hit home in Wednesday's attack, which came one day after Israeli military officials confidently claimed control of Bint Jbail and boasted that the militants were on the run.

To avoid more casualties, Israel wants to see the international force step in. But many nations are reluctant to ask their soldiers to disarm Hezbollah and ensure that gunrunners from Syria and Iran don't resupply the militants as Israel is demanding.

"If there are no other options, Israel will stay there in the south in this security zone and this will be again a Lebanese quagmire," said Nicolas Pelham, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group's Middle East Project.

That could create a quandary for Israel, which could get out more quickly by accepting a modest peacekeeping mission that would stop short of disarming Hezbollah. Or it could call for a force capable of taking on the militants—a demand that could take weeks of negotiation and still end in failure.

International reluctance to step into the fight was compounded by Israel's airstrike on a U.N. outpost Tuesday that killed four unarmed peacekeepers.

Israeli leaders voiced regret over the deaths and denied a contention by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the attack appeared to be intentional.

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report from Rome.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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