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British Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls Wednesday for Israel to declare a unilateral cease-fire in the growing Mideast conflict, insisting that Hezbollah must first free Israeli soldiers and stop firing rockets at Israel.

Blair told lawmakers at his weekly House of Commons question session that Hezbollah must make the first move to halt hostilities that erupted a week ago when militants nabbed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

"This would stop now if the soldiers who were kidnapped wrongly ... were released," he said. "It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa, deliberately to kill innocent civilians."

"If those two things happened, let me promise ... I would be the first out there saying 'Israel should halt this operation,"' Blair said.

"How can we be evenhanded if we're not willing to condemn Israel's disproportionate response?" Liberal Democrat Party Leader Menzies Campbell said.

Blair said it was important that Israel's military action be proportionate and that it do its best to minimize civilian casualties - but he clearly placed blame for the conflict on Hezbollah.

He said it was impossible to return to negotiations on the so-called road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians when Israel cannot be confident of its security.

"In the end, the only negotiated way through this is by everybody committing themselves to exclusively peaceful, democratic means and that has to hold on both sides of the border," he said.

Rice expected to visit region on SundayU.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to visit the region this Sunday, sources in Washington said Tuesday.

They added, however, that her departure could be delayed if the situation warrants it. The Bush administration is apparently sticking to its decision to allow Israel to complete its military operation before the international community imposes a cease-fire, and Danny Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, told the media on Monday that the time is not yet ripe for Rice's visit.

Meanwhile, Israel's United Nations envoy Danny Gillerman said on Tuesday that Rice was expected to arrive in the region on Friday.

The State Department confirmed Rice's intent to visit, and said she will visit both Beirut and Jerusalem. She also plans to meet - in a four-way summit - with the foreign ministers of the Arab states that oppose Hezbollah's attacks on Israel, primarily Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The venue for the four-way summit has not been announced, but may be Cairo.

Under growing international pressure to step up U.S. diplomatic efforts, Rice has said there should be a cease-fire in the Middle East "as soon as possible when conditions are conducive to do so."

She said on Tuesday she would travel to the region "when it is appropriate and when it is necessary and will be helpful to the situation" but gave no indication of the timeframe.

However, the U.S. has yet to formulate its position on the various ideas that have been broached for ending the fighting. In particular, it has not yet decided whether to support the stationing of an international force on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The American Jewish community will hold a rally in support of Israel on Wednesday in Washington, similar to Monday's rally in New York.

Ambassador Ayalon appeared at a conference of Christian leaders who support Israel on Tuesday, and other pro-Israel events were also held in other cities. Later this week, a group of Jewish leaders is planning a solidarity visit to Israel.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are discussing resolutions that denounce Hezbollah, Syria and Iran and express support for Israel's operations in Lebanon and Gaza. The resolutions are expected to pass both houses of Congress with sweeping bipartisan support later this week. The Senate resolution urges President George Bush to use all political and diplomatic means, including sanctions, to prevent Syria and Iran from continuing their anti-Israel activity. The vote was postponed Tuesday after several senators asked that a clause expressing sympathy for Lebanon's civilian casualties be added, but it will apparently be held on Wednesday.

Bush concerned Syria trying to reassert influence in LebanonU.S. President George W. Bush said Tuesday he suspects Syria is trying to reassert influence in Lebanon more than a year after Damascus ended what had effectively been a long-term military occupation of its smaller, weaker neighbor.

"It's in our interest for Syria to stay out of Lebanon and for this government to survive," Bush said in a reference to the young, Lebanese government.

Bush spoke after briefing members of Congress about his recent trip to Russia for an economic summit that was overshadowed by warfare between Hezbollah and Israel.

"The root cause of the problem is Hezbollah and that problem needs to addressed," Bush said.

He said there are suspicions that the instability caused by the Hezbollah attacks would cause some in Lebanon to invite Syria back into the nation. "Syria's trying to get back into Lebanon, it looks like, seems to me," Bush said.

Bush said the international community must address the actions of Hezbollah. "The world must deal with Hezbollah, with Syria and to continue to isolate Iran," Bush said.

Bush believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not doing enough to bring regional stability, the White House said on Tuesday.

"The president believes that at this point President Assad is not doing what he can to create stability, which would be to stop housing terrorist organizations and providing safe haven for them and permitting people to conduct terrorist operations or at least planning on his soil," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

The United States pressed Iran and Syria on Tuesday to exert their influence over Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas to halt rocket fire into Israel and return two captured soldiers to help end a week-old crisis.

Washington stuck to its position that its ally Israel was acting in self-defense and voiced reluctance to back calls for an immediate cease-fire while Hezbollah kept up cross-border rocket attacks that have drawn a wave of Israeli air strikes.

Defending U.S. efforts to quell the conflict, White House spokesman Tony Snow said it was up to Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's key supporters, to rein in the guerrilla group.

Analysts have said Iran may be using its clout with Hezbollah to show it can hurt U.S. allies and interests if Washington goes ahead with efforts to get UN sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.

"Israel is proceeding in the manner it sees fit to defend itself and its territory," Snow told reporters. "We've got to remember who's responsible for this - Hezbollah. Hezbollah started this."

"And Iran and Syria, its backers, ought to be using their influence to get Hezbollah to stop firing rockets and return the soldiers," Snow added.

Snow reiterated the U.S. appeal for Israel to act with restraint, saying, "We lament the death of innocents, whether they be in Israel or in Lebanon or in Gaza or anywhere else."

But he signaled U.S. resistance to pressuring Israel into an immediate cease-fire that would leave Hezbollah's rockets still within range of Israel's northern towns and cities.

"A cease-fire that would leave the status quo ante intact is absolutely unacceptable. A cease-fire that would leave intact a terrorist infrastructure is unacceptable," he said.

Snow said it was important to avoid further destabilization of Lebanon's fragile government but that it was too early to talk about sending a multinational security force to the Israel-Lebanon border.

Italy says it's pressing Damascus for dialogueItaly is pressuring Syria to get a dialogue going in hopes of defusing the escalation of fighting involving Lebanon and Israel, the Italian foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Italy's new premier, Romano Prodi, has been carving out a role for his country in efforts to stop violence in the Middle East.

"We have exercised pressure on the Syrian government," Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said, briefing the Chamber of Deputies on the Middle East crisis. "Several times Prodi has called Assad, to try to get a dialogue going."

During the G8 summit, which ended Monday in Russia, U.S. President George W. Bush suggested that Syria could use its influence on the Hezbollah guerrillas who have been attacking northern Israel with rockets.

Italy has traditionally good relations in the Arab world and with Iran, as well as ties to Israel that have improved in recent years. Prodi has relayed Israel's conditions for a cease-fire in Lebanon. He has also spoken with a top official of Iran, which along with Syria, is a principal support of Hezbollah.

D'Alema said he contacted Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to try to put pressure on the Hamas militant group to release a kidnapped Israeli soldier.

The foreign minister urged Europe to take a united front on the Middle East. "We have seen how divisions have hurt the EU's influence in foreign policy," D'Alema said. "It's a negative lesson which shouldn't be repeated."