Rice under pressure to call for truce

Almost every nation attending an international conference in Rome is pressing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call for an immediate end to the fighting on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

But Rice, who was attending the session on Wednesday, stood her ground in two days of diplomacy in Lebanon and Israel and the West Bank. Rather than a quick fix, she has repeatedly said the region needs enduring solutions, and other U.S. officials have raised doubts about an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in the south of Lebanon.

The Rome meeting of European and moderate Arab officials was to discuss the fighting sparked by the July 12 Hezbollah abduction of two Israeli soldiers. Rice attended a morning meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema before the international conference was set to begin.

When asked if she planned to announce an international force for Lebanon, Rice smiled and wouldn’t comment.

On Tuesday, Rice said her effort was designed “to bring about an urgent but enduring cease-fire in Lebanon, one that can deal with the causes of extremism that began this crisis and that can also lead to the establishment of the sovereignty of the Lebanese government throughout its territory.”

Soon after she arrived in Rome late Tuesday, word came that an Israeli airstrike had hit a U.N. observation post in south Lebanon, killing at least two U.N. personnel. Two others were feared dead. The attack prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to demand an Israeli investigation into the incident, which he called “apparently deliberate.” It could further fuel international demands for a quick end to the fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed “deep regret” over the deaths of the peacekeepers in a telephone call to Annan on Wednesday, according to a statement from Olmert’s office. Olmert said the peacekeepers were killed mistakenly, expressed dismay over Annan’s accusation and promised a thorough investigation, the statement said.

In a signal that the U.S. was not yet ready to change its position, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, traveling with Rice, told reporters that a cease-fire cannot be reached overnight.

Another senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about international forces that might be imposed in south Lebanon, said such troops would not “shoot their way in,” suggesting the fighting would have to be quelled first.

Welch called the Rome meeting a collection of “responsible voices that want to come together to help Lebanon.”

He noted that the U.S. led the way in an international humanitarian assistance campaign by offering $30 million in aid to Lebanon, which will come mostly in goods such as blankets and sheets. Saudi Arabia pledged $1.5 billion in aid on Tuesday.

“I would expect that there will be other such pledges forthcoming,” Welch said. “It is important that these voices be there and be gathered for this purpose because if you look at what the outcome of this crisis will be, it is going to be a stronger Lebanon where its freedoms are preserved and strengthened.”

An official close to the speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament has said Rice proposed that the fighting stop at the same time that an international force deploys in southern Lebanon. The United States also proposed that Hezbollah weapons be removed from a buffer zone extending about 18 miles from the Israeli border, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Many questions remain about what any international force would look like, including whether the troops would be stationed around the country or just in Lebanon’s tense south. Also to be negotiated is the role of Lebanese forces and whether international troops would secure Lebanon’s ports and airports.

On Tuesday, Jordan’s foreign minister said Arabs attending the Rome talks would insist on an immediate cease-fire and for the Lebanese government to take control over Hezbollah. Saudi King Abdullah appealed to the world to stop the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, saying that if peace moves fail, the Middle East could be engulfed in war.

Germany’s defense minister also said a cease-fire must be in place before an international mission to Lebanon can be contemplated.

An official in Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member, said it would consider playing a major role in a peacekeeping force.