Iran General NewsIn surprise, Rice's trip to Mideast begins in Beirut

In surprise, Rice’s trip to Mideast begins in Beirut

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New York Times: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Lebanese officials here on Monday to try to prop up the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and to reassure Arab allies who have become increasingly impatient with the Israeli bombardment, which has killed close to 400 people, mostly Lebanese civilians. The New York Times

By JAD MOUAWAD

BEIRUT, July 24 — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Lebanese officials here on Monday to try to prop up the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and to reassure Arab allies who have become increasingly impatient with the Israeli bombardment, which has killed close to 400 people, mostly Lebanese civilians.

While there was some bombing of Beirut’s southern suburb of Haret Hreik earlier Monday, the besieged capital was mostly quiet during Ms. Rice’s visit. She held talks with Mr. Siniora at the government’s Grand Serail building in Beirut’s downtown district for an hour but neither Ms. Rice nor Mr. Siniora made any comments.

Ms. Rice’s long convoy of tinted-glass armored sport utlity vehicles then headed into West Beirut to the palatial home of Nabih Berri, the influential head of the Lebanese Parliament and a political ally of Hezbollah. The meeting took place about a mile away from where the Israeli air force has been heavily pounding Hezbollah’s stronghold of Haret Hreik.

Once more, both Ms. Rice and her host remained silent.

Mr. Berri, a Shiite political leader, has been one of the few Lebanese leaders who has been in touch with Hezbollah’s boss, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, since the bombing began. Because of security concerns, Mr.

Siniora has said that neither he nor his government had had any direct contacts with Hezbollah’s leader.

Mr. Siniora has repeatedly called for an immediate cease-fire and the release of the two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah. The prime minister also said the international community needed to empower Lebanon to establish its authority over South Lebanon.

The Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah has two ministers, seeks the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from the Shebaa farms, a hamlet between Lebanon and Syria; the release of Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails; and a map of Israeli land mines left behind by the departing Israeli occupation troops in 2000.

Later on Monday evening, Ms. Rice flew to Israel and held talks with Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

While Ms. Rice was in Beirut, two Israeli jets circled in the clear blue skies of Beirut, heading south. In the distance, a thick black column of smoke from a bombed-out power station cloaked the mountain south of the capital.

A group of at least 30 demonstrators followed Ms. Rice from the Serail to Ain al-Tineh.

“This is not a war against Hezbollah that is being waged, this is a war against Lebanon and its people,” said Shereen Sadeq.

Many demonstrators carried signs. One of them read, “500,000 refugees: America’s tax dollars at work.”

Another said, simply “Be outraged.”

“She left faster than she came and no one will listen to her,” said Jad Al-Ali, another protester.

After Ms. Rice’s departure, Mr. Berri met with Mr. Siniora.

Before leaving Lebanon, Ms. Rice met with members of the so-called March 14 alliance at the American Embassy in Awkar, north of Beirut. These politicians, who include Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, were the part of the opposition that forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon.

The war has cost around 380 dead in Lebanon and at least 37 Israeli lives in 13 days.

Ms. Rice arrived in Lebanon on Monday as Israeli ground forces pushed deeper into the country in heavy fighting, capturing two Hezbollah guerrillas, while Hezbollah continued its barrage of missile attacks on northern Israel, firing 10 at several populated areas, The Associated Press reported.

Ms. Rice told reporters during the flight to the Middle East from Washington that she planned to talk to Mr. Siniora about establishing a humanitarian corridor for moving relief supplies into southern Lebanon. She will undoubtedly hear from him — again — about the Lebanese desire for an immediate cease-fire, which the Bush administration has resisted as it continues to give Israel more time to meet its military objective of degrading Hezbollah’s forces.

Ms. Rice characterized a meeting at the White House with Saudi diplomats on Sunday as “constructive” despite complaints from the Saudis that Mr. Bush still has not called for a cease-fire.

“We all agreed that it is urgent,” Ms. Rice said of a halt in the fighting, “but the framework is clearly to do this in a way that will help the Lebanese government exercise sovereignty over all of its territory.”

Elsewhere in the region, diplomatic efforts have focused on discussion of a possible multinational armed force being placed in the area.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel was interested in a NATO-led force, and the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, spoke of one consisting of European Union members with combat experience and the authority to take control of Lebanon’s border and crossing points.

Israel and the United States initially responded skeptically to the idea of an international force, first proposed on July 17 by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations.

In London on Monday, Mr. Blair said during a news conference with Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, that in the next few days, he hoped leaders could say what the plan is to bring about a cessation of the hostilities, which in Lebanon were “damaging that country and its fragile democracy.”

Mr. Blair called the destruction from the Israeli bombardment a “catastrophe,” but said any cease-fire would have to involve pledges by Hezbollah as well as Israel.

“Everyone wants it to stop, but it needs to be on both sides,” he said. “And that’s not going to happen without a plan.”

Mr. Blair also said that a cease-fire should be followed by a regional conference to persuade countries like Iran and Syria not to interfere with their neighbors. A “short-term plan to halt hostilities” should lead to “a longer-term plan to sort the region out,” he said.

Mr. Maliki, who stopped to see Mr. Blair on his way to Washington for a meeting with President Bush on Tuesday, said the Israeli assault on Lebanon could “backfire” and increase Arab hostility.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy of France were also in Israel on Sunday.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Helene Cooper from Beirut and Christine Hauser and John O’Neil from New York.

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