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Bush, Blair call for Mideast cease-fire

Multinational force proposed for southern Lebanon


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Middle East
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday announced that they would support a U.N. cease-fire resolution to end the Mideast crisis and the use of a multinational force to stabilize southern Lebanon.

The leaders said the force would help Lebanese troops take control of the south.

Fifty-one Israelis and 398 Lebanese have been killed since the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah guerillas. (Full story)

The two sides have been pummeling each other for 17 days. Hezbollah has been lobbing dozens of rockets a day into northern Israel as the Jewish state has used airstrikes, artillery and ground troops against targets in Lebanon.

"We want a Lebanon free of militias and foreign interference, and a Lebanon that governs its own destiny," Bush told reporters after meeting with Blair at the White House. (Watch how Bush says the crisis can be turned into an 'opportunity' -- 2:46)

It's unknown whether Hezbollah would participate in the proposed cease-fire and Blair said the multinational force wouldn't "fight their way" into the region.

"This can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work," the prime minister said.

A potential conduit with Hezbollah could be Nabih Berri, Lebanon's parliament speaker, who has close ties with Hezbollah and Syria. ( Watch how Syria could be a key player -- 2:12 )

During her surprise trip to Beirut on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conferred with Berri and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

After a closed-door meeting, a source in the parliament speaker's office said that Berri considered Rice's comments "not encouraging."

A cease-fire plan could be taken up by the United Nations as early as Monday, Bush and Blair said.

Both men challenged Iran and Syria, which have much influence over Hezbollah, to take part in the process.

Bush said his "message to Syria is, you know, become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace."

The prime minister said: "Iran and Syria have a choice. ... They can either come in and participate as proper and responsible members of the international community or they will face the risk of increasing confrontation."

'International consensus' required

It's too soon to know details about the proposed multinational force, Bush said.

"In terms of troops, ... this is one of these issues that requires international consensus."

Bush said some of the questions about the force would be "How do we help the Lebanese army succeed? What's required? 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?"

Blair said he feels "deeply for people in Lebanon and people in Israel who are the innocent casualties of this conflict."

"And what we're putting forward today is actually a practical plan that would lead to a U.N. resolution -- could be early next week -- that will allow it, put in place the conditions for it to stop," Blair said.

Bush said, "An effective multinational force will help speed delivery of humanitarian relief, facilitate the return of displaced persons, and support the Lebanese government as it asserts full sovereignty over its territory and guards its borders."

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan concurred, saying that any multinational force should focus on bolstering the Lebanese government.

"The emphasis should be on strengthening the government of Lebanon to take charge of its territory and to extend its authority throughout the country," Annan said, adding that that would include disarming Hezbollah and other militias.

"The people in Lebanon need our help," he said. "I think that many battles are being fought on the soil of Lebanon, and some have absolutely nothing to do with Lebanon."

Bush said he planned to appeal to the United Nations "for a Chapter 7 resolution setting out a clear framework for cessation of hostilities on an urgent basis, and mandating the multinational force."

British diplomats have been talking about a cease-fire followed by deployment of an international border force, CNN's Robin Oakley reported. Then a second stage would begin, involving a larger border force that would also help with disarming Hezbollah and establishing a greater role for Lebanese government forces.

Friday's meeting in Washington followed an Italian conference of key Middle East decision-makers that failed to agree on an immediate cease-fire as the United States, backed by Britain, insisted any halt to violence should be linked to a wider effort to disarm Hezbollah. (Full story)

A senior U.N. diplomat has described the mood at those talks as somber. He said all the parties but the United States wanted an immediate cessation of fighting to make room for more negotiations and humanitarian aid.

Rice argued that taking such an approach would leave Hezbollah in place and armed with rockets.

Before the Rome meeting, Rice visited the Lebanese capital, as well as Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Blair, meanwhile, faces pressure at home to salvage his diplomatic reputation after an eavesdropped conversation between him and Bush at a recent Group of Eight summit appeared to show the British prime minister's deferential relationship with the U.S. leader.

Since the outbreak of fighting between Israel and Lebanese guerrillas, Blair has put himself at odds with Arab nations and Britain's European allies by refusing to call for an immediate cease-fire -- echoing U.S. policy.

Like Bush, Blair has said a cease-fire will work only if conditions are first put in place to ensure that both sides keep it.

After meeting with Bush, Blair is to travel to California -- the first official visit to the state by a sitting prime minister, according to the British consulate in San Francisco. He will discuss issues including globalization, trade and biotechnology.

CNN's Robin Oakley and Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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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