By BARRY SCHWEID
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed support Thursday for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon as the first phase in ending the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. It was the most concrete signal yet that the U.S. may be willing to compromise on the stalemate over how to end the fighting.
Moving closer to the position that France and other European countries are taking, Rice predicted that a U.N. Security Council resolution would be approved within days that would include a cease-fire and describe principles for a lasting peace.
On CNN’s "Larry King Live," Rice said the U.S. is moving "towards being able to do this in phases that will permit first an end or a stoppage in the hostilities and based on the establishment on some very important principles for how we move forward," according to a partial transcript of the show being aired Thursday night.
Almost since the outbreak of the fighting on July 12, the Bush administration has insisted that a cease-fire and steps aimed at creating a long-term peace be worked out simultaneously. These included establishing an international peacekeeping force and requiring the disarmament of the Hezbollah militant group.
"We need to end the hostilities in a way that points forward a direction for a sustainable peace," said Rice, who provided little precision about what a compromise resolution might say.
The measure that France and the U.S. were working on would be the first of two resolutions aimed at achieving a permanent cease-fire and a long-term solution to the conflict.
"We’re certainly getting close," she said. "We’re working with the French very closely. We’re working with others."
Asked if U.S. policy had shifted, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment.
The war, now in its fourth week, is taking a growing toll of Lebanese and Israeli civilians, as well as Hezbollah and Israeli fighters, and calls for an immediate cease-fire have intensified.
Meanwhile, the State Department said the United States plans to help train and equip the Lebanese army so it can take control of all of the nation’s territory when warfare between Israel and Hezbollah eases.
The program was approved by Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to take effect "once we have conditions on the ground permitting," spokesman Sean McCormack said.
McCormack provided no details on what equipment the United States might provide, the training that would be conducted, how many U.S. personnel would be involved, or possible costs.
Last week, the State Department notified Congress it wanted to add $10 million to the $1.5 million it provides annually to the Lebanese military.
Other nations will help out, too, McCormack said.
Gen. John Abizaid, who heads the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday the Lebanese armed force "needs a significant upgrade of equipment and training capability that I believe the Western nations, particularly the United States, can assist with."
Abizaid also said he believes Lebanon can extend government control over the entire country if it gets sufficient help, including an international peacekeeping force with a clear mandate, cooperation from the Lebanese government and "robust rules of engagement."
Asked what he meant by "robust rules of engagement," Abizaid said the commander of the peacekeeping force must be able to use "all available means at his forces’ disposal. And I think, in the case of southern Lebanon, it’ll have to have capabilities that are just not minor, small arms, but would include all arms."
The U.S. has been looking for a Security Council resolution that would address disarming Hezbollah, already ordered by the Security Council in 2004, and establishing an international peacekeeping force to move into southern Lebanon.
Nations that would contribute troops are expected to meet next week at the U.N.
Bush has said he does not envision having American ground troops in a peacekeeping force, but the U.S. could contribute communications, logistics and other support.