On a mission to avert full-scale war in the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there was an urgent need for a ceasefire in southern Lebanon but conditions had to be right.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday as she flew to the region, Rice said her focus would also be to ease the humanitarian crisis after nearly two weeks of fighting between Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Israel Defense Forces troops.
"It is very important to establish conditions under which a ceasefire can take place. We believe that a ceasefire is urgent. It is important to have conditions that will make it also sustainable," said Rice before a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland.
Her trip includes stops in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories.
Before leaving Washington, Rice met Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the White House where he pressed President George W. Bush to agree to an immediate ceasefire in southern Lebanon.
Bush has so far resisted calling for an immediate ceasefire, saying Israel has a right to defend itself and a cessation of hostilities must address the root causes of the conflict.
After pressure from the Saudis, Rice seemed to take a softer line than last Friday when she said an immediate ceasefire would be a "false promise" that would let Hezbollah reemerge to attack Israel.
Rice said conditions for a ceasefire included that the Lebanese government must have total sovereignty over its land and Hezbollah must not be allowed to use its territory to "plunge Lebanon and the region into war."
Elements of a framework ceasefire deal had been discussed with the United Nations, the Israelis and the Lebanese, said Rice. She declined to provide further details of such a deal, which will be hammered out both in the region and at a conference on Lebanon slated for Rome on Wednesday.
"The really important thing here is that whatever we do it has to contribute towards Lebanon's regaining sovereignty over all its territory," said Rice.
Rice has been criticized by analysts for embarking on this trip too late and for not using it to meet top officials from Syria, which backs Hizbollah along with Iran. Syria said Sunday it was ready for direct dialogue with Washington over Lebanon.
Rice said she wanted to "correct" the perception her government had no contact with Syria, pointing out Washington had a diplomatic mission in Damascus.
"We have talked to the Syrians over and over again," she said. "The problem is not that people have not talked to the Syrians but that the Syrians have not acted," she said.
Rice is scheduled to go on to Malaysia for meetings with Asian ministers after her Middle East trip and she said she was prepared to return to the region on her way home if it would help push the process forward.
Senior Bush administration officials will stay behind in Jerusalem while Rice is in Malaysia to press all sides to reach a ceasefire and to discuss the humanitarian crisis.
Many Arab nations believe the United States has not put enough pressure on Israel to avoid civilian casualties in Lebanon, where more than 369 people have been killed since Hezbollah captured two IDF soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. Thirty-seven Israelis have been killed.
Rice reiterated the U.S. view that Israel had a right to defend itself and called for restraint on all sides. Asked to comment on an Israeli newspaper report that the United States had given Israel a week to continue pounding Hezbollah, she said this was not true.
Senior U.S. officials said Sunday they believed Israel has an American nod to continue operations against Hezbollah at least until next Sunday.
Rice will first explore ways with Israel's leadership to end the crisis and begin to shape a new order in Lebanon. She will return next Sunday to try to implement a cease-fire.
From Jerusalem, Rice will go on to Rome to meet senior delegates from the UN and Arab states. They will discuss formulating a political arrangement and a plan to rehabilitate Lebanon. From Rome she will travel to an Asian conference in Malaysia, from where she will return to Israel.
Rice's trip has two main goals: an attempt to formulate an agreement to end the fighting in Lebanon and sending a strong international force to enforce Security Council Resolution 1559 calling to disarm Hazbollah and deploy the Lebanese Army along the Israeli border.
U.S. to urge more pressure on HezbollahThe United States will urge Middle East leaders to help boost pressure on Hezbollah as a means of solving the crisis in southern Lebanon, President George W. Bush said on Saturday.
The Bush administration has rejected calls for an immediate cease-fire and Rice, who leaves on Sunday for a trip to the region, said she would focus instead on finding a sustainable end to the violence.
Previewing Rice's trip in his weekly radio address, Bush said she would "make it clear that resolving the crisis demands confronting the terrorist group that launched the attacks and the nations that support it."
Bush cited the role of Iran and Syria in providing help to Hezbollah.
"Their actions threaten the entire Middle East and stand in the way of resolving the current crisis and bringing lasting peace to this troubled region," said Bush, who is spending the weekend at his Crawford ranch.
On Saturday, Bush called Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the humanitarian needs of the Lebanese people and Rice's trip to the region, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Bush stood by his stance that Israel had a right to act in its own defense.
The Bush administration has expressed worries the conflict might weaken the fragile government in Lebanon led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
While reiterating his support for the Lebanese government, Bush laid blame for the problems squarely on Hezbollah.
"Hezbollah's practice of hiding rockets in civilian neighborhoods, and its efforts to undermine the democratically elected government have shown it to be no friend of Lebanon," he said. "By its actions, Hezbollah has jeopardized Lebanon's tremendous advances and betrayed the Lebanese people."
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