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U.S. official: Israel needs time to 'defang' Hezbollah

Secretary of State Rice won't travel to Mideast before next week

By Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

A Mideast trip by Condoleezza Rice wouldn't happen before next week, a senior administration official said.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not go on a peace mission to the Mideast before next week, giving Israel time to "defang" Hezbollah, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Rice, who's set to travel to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday, has said the U.S. would support a cease-fire in the seven-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah "when conditions are conducive to do so."

More than 300 Lebanese have been killed and more than 1,000 injured after a week of Israeli airstrikes, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Wednesday. Israel's military said 29 Israelis have died in the conflict, including 15 civilians. (Full story)

Senior administration officials said more time is needed to shape the diplomacy and to create conditions on the ground for a permanent change of the situation -- not merely a cease-fire. Israel needs time to "defang Hezbollah," said one of the officials, who asked not to be named in light of the ongoing diplomacy.

Major strikes will end depending, in part, on when Israel believes the job is done, but one senior official said there could be "manageable differences" over determining when enough is enough.

The officials said some Israeli goals may not be achieved overnight or by military action.

A U.N. team under Annan is returning from a trip to assess the crisis, but officials said it was unclear whether the team accomplished much.

Rice will hear from the team during Friday's meeting at the United Nations, the State Department said.

Rice also plans to meet with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, who also recently returned from the Mideast.

The ultimate goal is to get the Lebanese army to deploy with international support.

Toward that end, senior administration officials said options considered by the United Nations include:

  • creating a buffer zone in southern Lebanon along the border with Israel;
  • expanding the UNIFIL peacekeeping force that was created in 1978;
  • dispatching an international team to monitor the border;
  • imposing an international arms embargo for Lebanon, except for the Lebanese army, which is seen as too weak to deploy on its own, and
  • rallying international support for Lebanon, such as a donors' conference, to rebuild the country.
  • Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have called for an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon larger and stronger than UNIFIL, a long-established U.N. peacekeeping force already in the country. (Full story)

    U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton described calls for a cease-fire a "simplistic" solution to the problem.

    He said he would clarify the U.S. position on the crisis after the U.N. team presents its findings.

    "Among other things, I want somebody to address the problem [of] how you get a cease-fire with a terrorist organization," Bolton said. "I'd like to know when there's been an effective cease-fire between a terrorist organization and a state in the past.

    "This is a different kind of situation and I'm not sure that sort of old thinking, conventional thinking works in a case like this."

    Iran's state-run news agency reported Wednesday that Lebanese President Emile Lahoud met with Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Mohammad-Reza Sheybani and expressed thanks for Iranian support during the week-long Israeli air offensive in Lebanon.

    Israel has used mostly warplanes to counter Hezbollah rocket firings in the cross-border hostilities that began after two Israeli soldiers were captured by guerrillas inside Israeli territory on July 12.

    Bush blames Hezbollah

    President Bush called Hezbollah the root cause of the situation in remarks to reporters Tuesday, and said the militants must be confronted.

    "I strongly believe every nation ought to be able to defend itself from terrorist attacks," he said.

    But he urged Israel to be mindful not to undermine the Lebanese government, which formed just over a year ago with the first elections held after 20 years of a Syrian military presence.

    "It's in our interest for Syria to stay out of Lebanon," Bush said.

    On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made it clear that in addition to a cease-fire, Israel wants its abducted soldiers returned unharmed and Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon disarmed. (Full story)

    Nouhad Mahmoud, Lebanon's ambassador to the United Nations, said a cease-fire would be necessary before the kidnapped Israelis could be returned.

    Mahmoud said Lebanese authorities might be able to persuade the Shiite militia, which holds seats in Lebanon's parliament and government, to release the men -- but could not force Hezbollah to free them.

    Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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