Iran Foreign Minister Meets With French Counterpart in Beirut

French PM welcomes IAF suspension of strikes, but says insufficient; Italy says IAF halt is 'ray of light.'

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, whose country is a main backer of Hezbollah, met his French counterpart in Beirut on Monday for talks on resolving the crisis in Lebanon.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said earlier on Monday in Beirut it was important to maintain contacts with Tehran as part of efforts to resolve the crisis in Lebanon, where Hezbollah and Israel have been at war for nearly three weeks.

France and Iran have called for an immediate ceasefire to halt the war between Hizbollah and Israel.

Mottaki met Douste-Blazy at the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

Journalists were invited to the Iranian Embassy to cover the meeting but Douste-Blazy had not been expecting press and did not want to speak to reporters, Iranian embassy sources said.

Iranian embassy officials escorted cameramen and photographers to see Douste-Blazy sitting on a couch with Mottaki.

Iran is a significant, respected player in the Middle East which is playing a stabilizing role, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said earlier Monday in Beirut.

"It was clear that we could never accept a destabilization of Lebanon, which could lead to a destabilization of the region," Douste-Blazy said in Beirut.

"In the region there is of course a country such as Iran - a great country, a great people and a great civilization which is respected and which plays a stabilizing role in the region," he told a news conference.

Asked whether he would meet his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki later Monday, Douste-Blazy said as he left for Beirut: "It's normal that politicians who want a political agreement can meet each other."

Iran and Syria are the principal sponsors of Hezbollah, and the two countries have applauded Hezbollah's July 12 capture of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers, which triggered the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.

The French foreign minister repeated his country's call for an immediate cease-fire, saying the military situation was at an "impasse" so a political solution was needed.

"We can see clearly today, since July 12, that Israel will not reach its goals by a purely military solution," he said.

"What happened in Qana a few hours ago confirms to me the importance of the immediate end to hostilities and confirms to me also that an immediate end to hostilities is a condition for everyone to talk to each other, to negotiate and reach a political agreement," he said.

Douste-Blazy was referring to an IAF attack on a building in the south Lebanon village of Qana on Sunday, which killed 56 people, more than half of them children.

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin welcomed Monday a pledge by Israel to suspend air strikes in Lebanon for 48 hours but said it was not enough.

"It is, for France, a first step, but an insufficient step given the current stakes," he told reporters.

"We must all together redouble our efforts to achieve the immediate cessation of hostilities requested by the president," de Villepin added.

But Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema called the suspension a "ray of light," that must now turn into a real cease-fire, Italian news reports said.

D'Alema made the remarks during a two-day visit to Jerusalem, where he discussed the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top officials.

D'Alema said the cessation in Israel's airstrikes was a "ray of light" and a "positive sign," the ANSA and Apcom news agencies said. But he urged caution.

"It's only a very first step," he was quoted as saying. "Now it's necessary to move from a humanitarian truce to a real cease-fire."

Germany also welcomed Israel's pledge to halt strikes, and expressed the hope that the move would lead to a lasting cease-fire.

"The government remains very concerned about the situation in the Middle East," government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm told a news conference.

"However, it sees in the two-day cessation of Israeli air strikes in south Lebanon a positive sign that this can be used not just for urgently needed humanitarian provisions but also to reach a lasting cease-fire as soon as possible," he said.

Mottaki's visit to Beirut will be the first by an Iranian official to Lebanon since fighting broke out between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Mottaki was to arrive overland from neighboring Syria, Lebanese foreign ministry officials said.

He was to hold talks with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh.