Bush, Blair urge multinational force to control Mideast fighting

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday they want an international force dispatched quickly to the Mideast but said any plan to end the fighting must address long-running regional disputes to be effective.

(Jim Young/Reuters)

(Jim Young/Reuters)

The leaders, standing side by side in the White House’s East Room after meeting in the Oval Office, said they want to see a U.N. resolution introduced next week. It is aimed at ending the more than 2-week-old battle between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

Also, Bush announced he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to the region Saturday to negotiate the terms.

Bush said that he and Blair envisioned a resolution “setting out clear framework for cessation of hostilities on an urgent basis and mandating the multinational force.”

“This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East,” the president said. “Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region.”

Any suggestion that Blair would distance himself from Bush by calling for an immediate, unconditional end to Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah militia that effectively control southern Lebanon didn’t materialize. His language was nearly identical to Bush’s.

The leaders’ united stance sets them against many other European and Arab nations that want an immediate cease-fire and have deplored the impact on Lebanon of the Israeli campaign.

Bush and Blair defended their insistence that any solution to the current crisis must also address its root causes, saying to do anything else would ensure a return to violence and long-term suffering for the Lebanese people. They were referring particularly to the call contained in a 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution that Lebanese militias such as Hezbollah be disarmed _ something the Lebanese government has been unable and unwilling to do.

The position by Washington and London has been interpreted by Israel as a green light to continue as long as it takes to cripple the Shiite Muslim militant group.

Israel’s punishing campaign of airstrikes, artillery shelling and clashes, which began after Hezbollah crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers, has killed an estimated 600 Lebanese. More than 50 Israelis have died, most of them soldiers.

“In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors are willing to kill and use violence to stop the spread of peace and democracy,” Bush said. “They’re not going to succeed.”

He added: “The stakes are larger than just Lebanon.”

Said Blair: “We know how this situation came about and how it started.”

“We’ve got to resolve the immediate situation,” he said. “But we shouldn’t be in any doubt at all _ that will be a temporary respite unless we put in place the longer-term framework.”

But Blair also revealed the immense difficulty of restoring calm to a long-volatile region. “This can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work,” he said.

Bush and Blair came together at the White House as consultations continue on the makeup and mandate of a possible international peacekeeping force to stabilize the Israeli-Lebanese border and help the Lebanese army establish control over Hezbollah.

A senior State Department aide was in Europe. And the leaders said that nations that might contribute troops would meet Monday at the United Nations in New York.

Bush said Lebanon and Israel are the main two parties that must agree to an international peacekeeping force, and would not reveal his opinions about the force’s makeup.

“One of the things you’ll see in discussions there, is how do we help the Lebanese army succeed,” Bush said. “What does it require? What’s the manpower need to be in order to help this force move into the south so the government can take control of the country.”

U.S. officials say European troops would likely dominate the force.

“I don’t anticipate American combat power, combat forces, being used in this force,” Rice told reporters Thursday while traveling to Malaysia for an Asian regional conference.

Blair came to Washington for the second time in two months politically weakened, both by Iraq and by domestic woes in Britain.

His close alliance with Bush has made him the subject of ridicule. Blair has responded to growing calls from inside his own party to step down by saying it is too soon. But he has promised to give up the prime minister’s post before the next national elections, expected by 2009.

Most recently, Blair’s government has had to deal with allegations that two U.S.-chartered planes carrying missiles to Israel stopped to refuel at a Scottish airport without filing the proper paperwork for hazardous materials.

And at the Group of Eight summit of world powers in St. Petersburg, Russia, Bush and Blair had an undignified luncheon chat unaware that a microphone was live. Bush’s “Yo, Blair!” greeting has dogged the British leader _ and prompted a light moment at the start of their joint appearance Friday.

“As you know, we’ve got a close relationship. You tell me what you think. You share with me your perspective. And you let me know when the microphone is on,” said Bush, jokingly tapping the mike in front of him and drawing a hearty laugh from Blair.


Associated Press reporter Jennifer Quinn contributed to this story.

© 2006 The Associated Press