BEIRUT, Lebanon—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will return to the Middle East on Saturday to push for an international peacekeeping force to end the 17-day war between Israel and Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon.
President Bush said Friday that Rice still wouldn't call for an immediate cease-fire, despite the urging of many allies, but that a United Nations resolution authorizing a thousands-strong peacekeeping force could help stabilize the region and pave the way for what U.S. officials have called a more lasting peace.
"Her instructions are to work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable U.N. Security Council resolution that we can table next week," Bush said at a joint news conference in Washington with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited countries interested in contributing troops to a peacekeeping force to a meeting in New York on Monday.
Rice's second visit to the region this week was announced as Israel continued bombarding southern Lebanon and Hezbollah fired another 111 rockets into Israel and debuted what it said was a longer-range missile that struck deeper into northern Israel than its previous missiles.
The so-called Khaibar-1 rocket landed outside the Israeli town of Afula—south of the port city of Haifa, which Hezbollah has struck repeatedly—but caused no injuries, Israeli officials said. Israeli military officials said that while it hasn't been officially studied, one of the rockets appeared to have had a larger payload than usual, about 220 pounds of explosives compared with the usual 12 to 24 pounds.
Rice will arrive in Jerusalem directly from an Asian summit meeting in Malaysia, and she's expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top officials, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Rice visited Lebanon and Israel earlier this week, but didn't call for an immediate end to the fighting, which so far has killed between 440 and 600 Lebanese, most of them civilians, as well as 52 Israelis.
At an international conference on the crisis in Rome, she blocked a joint statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. The move triggered widespread criticism that the U.S. was buying time for Israel to root out Hezbollah terrorists while thousands of civilians were being killed or injured.
Israel's justice minister, Haim Ramon, said that by failing to call for an immediate truce, the international community had given Israel an implicit green light to continue its military operation.
On Friday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli rejected those claims.
"Any such statement is outrageous," Ereli said. "The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict."
Pressure for an immediate cease-fire is growing. France wants a quick U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire. Observers believe that if Israel's offensive against Hezbollah stalls, it might become more amenable to a negotiated deal.
The U.N. could pass a new resolution as early as next week, the State Department official said. U.S. officials said negotiations are continuing over which countries would contribute troops and whether the force would carry the U.N. banner.
It could take months, however, to hammer out the details and put a peacekeeping force in place. Some countries have expressed concern over sending troops to the Israel-Lebanon border since four U.N. soldiers were killed on Tuesday when their observation post was destroyed by heavy fire from Israeli jets.
On Friday, the U.N. withdrew unarmed observers from two posts in southern Lebanon, citing security concerns. The observers will be relocated to U.N. bases that have armed troops.
Nearly all of southern Lebanon's roads remain too dangerous for humanitarian convoys. Planes carrying food and medical supplies from Jordan and Egypt landed Friday at Beirut's badly damaged international airport, but it's unclear when the aid will reach some of the 800,000 people displaced by the conflict.
Only 200 of Lebanon's 170,000 licensed truck drivers are working under these conditions, Lebanese officials said.
The U.N. emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, called for a 72-hour cease-fire so that aid workers could evacuate children, the elderly and the wounded, and deliver medical supplies.
(McClatchy correspondents Warren P. Strobel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Matthew Schofield in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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