Bush to press Israel to curb civilian casualties

George W. Bush, Laura Bush
President Bush and Laura Bush attend a ceremony at the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

President Bush wants Israel to minimize the risk of casualties in its campaign in southern Lebanon, but will not press it to halt its military operation, the White House said on Friday.

White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that Bush spoke by telephone to Lebanon’s prime minister among other Middle East leaders.

Snow said Bush “believes the Israelis have the right to protect themselves and that in doing that they should limit as much as possible so-called collateral damage not only to facilities but also to human lives,” Snow said.

Asked whether he agreed to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s request to tell the Israelis to limit their military operations, Snow said: “No. The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel.”

Bush’s conversation with Saniora as he flew to St. Petersburg, Russia from Germany was part of a round of telephone diplomacy aimed at quelling the flare-up in violence in the Mideast. The president also spoke with allies Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II about the violence in their neighborhood, the White House said.

Egypt, Jordan condemn Israel
The leaders of Egypt and Jordan met on Friday and both condemned Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Gaza and called on all sides to show self-restraint.

A joint statement issued after the meeting also said that attacks on Lebanese and Palestinian utilities and infrastructure were against international law.

Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel and Israeli embassies in their capitals.

Arab governments have agreed to send their foreign ministers to Cairo for an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss the Israeli attacks on Lebanon and incursions into Gaza.

Saudi Arabia on Thursday blamed “elements” inside Lebanon for the violence, in unusually frank language directed at guerrilla group Hezbollah and its Iranian backers.

“A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside (Lebanon) and those behind them without recourse to the legal authorities and consulting and coordinating with Arab nations,” a statement carried by the official news agency SPA said.

As the leaders conferred, Israeli war planes bombed Beirut’s airport Friday for a second day, along with southern suburbs of the capital.

Israel's military began striking targets in Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers Wednesday in a brazen cross-border raid into northern Israel. Hezbollah militants have fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israel. Dozens of Lebanese and at least 10 Israelis have been killed.

Hezbollah is an the Iranian-backed militant Shiite faction which has a free hand in southern Lebanon and also holds seats in parliament. The Lebanese government has no control over Hezbollah but has long resisted international pressure to forcibly disarm the group for fears of igniting sectarian conflict.

At the same time, Israeli forces have been pounding the Gaza Strip to the south since shortly after the June 25 taking of an Israeli soldier by militants linked to the Palestinian Hamas group.

Chirac critical of Israel
European leaders expressed fears of a widening Middle East conflict that could spiral out of control.

French President Jacques Chirac castigated Israel for its military offensive in Lebanon on Friday, calling it "totally disproportionate," and asked aloud whether Lebanon's destruction was not the ultimate goal.

However, the French president balanced his words, saying that rockets fired on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas are "inadmissible, unacceptable and irresponsible."

"I have the feeling, if not the conviction, that Hamas and Hezbollah wouldn't have taken the initiatives alone," Chirac said, making a veiled reference to Syria and Iran, which backs Hezbollah.

The growing crisis, along with concern that Iran may be seeking to develop nuclear arms, creates "a truly dangerous situation in which we must be very, very careful," Chirac said.

Other reactions included:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin called on all sides to stand down. "All the sides that are involved in the conflict must immediately cease military action," he said before a G-8 summit this weekend in St. Petersburg.
  • The European Union was sending its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to the region Saturday, and the 25 foreign ministers of the EU were to meet Monday in Brussels to discuss the crisis. Erkki Tuomioja, foreign minister of Finland, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, expressed everyone's silent fear that the conflict could expand, even to Syria, which some countries like France feel may have had a hand in the escalation.
  • Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero warned Israel that it was "making a mistake" to attack Lebanon and said that both the EU and the United Nations must secure "an immediate cessation of the hostilities."
  • The Vatican also expressed fears of a widening conflict.