WASHINGTON — President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday they want an international force dispatched quickly to the Middle East but said any plan to end the fighting must address long-running regional disputes to be effective.
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 aimed at the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants introduced next week. Bush announced he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to the region on Saturday to negotiate the terms.
Bush said they envisioned a resolution providing “a framework for the cessation of hostilities on an urgent basis and mandating the multinational force.”
“This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East,” Bush said. “Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region.”
The united stance by Bush and Blair set them against many other European and Arab nations. In resisting calls for an immediate, unconditional end to Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah militants that effectively control southern Lebanon, Washington and London say any solution must address root causes of the current crisis.
They referred 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.
This position has been interpreted by Israel as a green light to continue its offensive as long as it takes to cripple the Shiite Muslim militant group.
‘They’re not going to succeed’
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.”
Bush said the plan developed by he and Blair would “make every effort to achieve a lasting peace out of this process.”
He added: “The stakes are larger than just Lebanon.”
“Nothing will work, unless, as well as an end to the immediate crisis, we put in place the measures necessary to prevent it from occurring again,” Blair said. “We take this opportunity to set out and achieve a different strategic direction for the whole of that region.”
But Blair also revealed the 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 more than 2-week-old situation along the Israeli-Lebanese border and help the Lebanese army establish over Hezbollah in the south.
A senior State Department aide was in Europe. And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made plans to invite nations that might contribute troops to meet on Monday in New York, according to a United Nations official who spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcement had been made.
Europe troops to dominate peacekeeping force
Bush said Lebanon and Israel are the main two parties that must agree to a force. He said the goal of any international peacekeeping is to help Lebanon be free and be able to govern and defend itself.
“One of the things you’ll see in discussions there, is how do we help 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 any international peacekeeping 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.
Many countries in Europe and the Middle East are calling for an immediate cease-fire and have deplored the impact of Israel’s campaign on Lebanon. The gap between the United States and Britain and other nations has intensified some of the diplomatic strains that have existed since Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 with Blair as one of his chief international backers.
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