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U.S. worried Israeli operations could weaken Lebanese government

By Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

Smoke rises from Beirut's main airport after Thursday's airstrikes.

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Elise Labott

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration is concerned that Israeli military operations in Lebanon could play into Hezbollah's hands by weakening the pro-U.S. Lebanese government and helping pro-Syrian forces, senior U.S. officials said Thursday.

The United States has called Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers a provocation and placed blame squarely on the group, which Washington has labeled a terrorist organization.

The Bush administration has said Iran and Syria bear ultimate responsibility for the violence with its support for the Hezbollah and for Hamas militants battling Israeli forces in Gaza. Hamas' military wing and two other militant groups claimed responsibility for capturing another Israeli soldier on June 25.

The escalation comes as world powers are pushing Iran to accept an international offer of incentives to end its nuclear program or face possible United Nations sanctions.

But as Israeli troops moved into southern Lebanon after the kidnappings, blockading ports and bombing airports, U.S. diplomats hope Israeli leaders will keep long-term regional strategy in mind.

"We are saying, 'Think before you leap. Don't overdo it. Don't respond with emotions and end up bringing the fall of this government and strengthening Hezbollah and bring about another pro-Syrian government,' " said a senior U.S. government official, speaking privately due to the sensitivity of the ongoing diplomacy.

Another senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified, said, "We are telling them to think about how these actions get to where you want to go. Not with just the release of the Israeli soldiers, which is an important short-range goal, but also the long-range goal of peace with your neighbors."

Phone calls by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other regional leaders have underscored the critical nature of the situation.

Hezbollah is based in Lebanon and seeks to establish a fundamentalist Muslim state. Siniora is seen as friendly to the United States and the Bush administration has urged him to disarm Hezbollah through a process of national reconciliation.

Pro-Syrian leaders and Syrian troops controlled much of Lebanon's affairs for 29 years until last year. National and international pressure prompted Damascus to withdraw its forces after a popular former Lebanese prime minister was assassinated in a car bombing that many Lebanese blamed on Syria.

Bush making calls

Bush, speaking Thursday during a trip to Germany, warned that Israel should take care not to "weaken" Lebanon's government and said he would be "making calls" to other leaders about the crisis.

"The concern is that any activities by Israel to protect herself will weaken that government, or topple that government, and we've made it clear in our discussions," Bush said.

Rice spoke three times Wednesday with Siniora in addition to calling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and twice phoning Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Rice told Siniora that the United States understands the Lebanese government doesn't have control over Hezbollah, but Lebanon must exercise what influence it has to try to secure the soldiers' release, officials said.

A U.S. diplomatic team -- David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrahms -- is in the region trying to mediate an end to the crisis, reaching out to U.S. allies Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to put pressure on Syria and Iran. The Egyptian foreign minister is visiting the Syrian capital Damascus.

U.N. to discuss crisis

The United Nations Security Council says it will hold an "urgent meeting" on the crisis Friday, and Rice also spoke about it with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is sending a diplomatic team to the region this week to urge all sides in the conflict to use restraint and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The United States seeks the dismantlement of Hezbollah under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which in 2004 called for the "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias."

Olmert called Hezbollah's actions an "act of war" by Lebanon, but U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the Bush administration does not hold the Lebanese government responsible, seeing Hezbollah as operating outside the government's authority.

During the past year, officials said, the United States has been urging Syria to recognize Lebanese sovereignty and has been making many attempts to support the fragile Siniora government.

The Bush administration emphasizes Israel's right to defend itself, saying Washington won't tell Israel how to conduct its military operations. "But don't confuse Hezbollah with the Siniora government, which is not responsible for the Hezbollah's actions," said a senior U.S. official who asked not to be named because he's not been authorized to speak publicly.

But unequivocal U.S. support of Israel's operations in Lebanon may send the wrong political signals in the region, officials said, leading to questions about Washington's commitment to Lebanese sovereignty.

The U.S. message to Israel, officials said, is that it should balance its short-term goal to free its captured soldiers with its long-term interests. The weakening of the Lebanese government and strengthening of Hezbollah is not something in Israel's best interest.

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