Sources: Rice proposes international forces in Lebanon

The plan initially would involve putting an international force of up to 10,000 Turkish and Egyptian troops under a NATO or U.N. commander into southern Lebanon following a cease-fire.

That force ultimately would be replaced by another international force of up to 30,000 troops that would help the Lebanese government regain control over the southern part of the country, where the Shiite militia Hezbollah now dominates.

Rice presented the plan to Lebanese officials Monday and was showing the same proposal to Israeli officials Tuesday, the political sources said.

The plan, which Rice also will offer to European foreign ministers this week in Italy, depends on several conditions, the sources said.

The first is that Hezbollah either would have to agree to the plan or be defeated militarily.

The second is that Israel wants to drive as far as 20 miles (32 kilometers) into southern Lebanon to end the threat of Hezbollah missiles hitting northern Israel. Such a military campaign might take weeks to accomplish.

Hezbollah sparked the crisis July 12 when it captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight other troops in a cross-border raid into northern Israel. Israel responded with an air campaign and ground offensive against the militants in southern Lebanon.

The conflict has left more than 400 people dead on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border. The fighting has displaced an estimated 800,000 civilians, and humanitarian relief has been stymied by bombing that has made many roads impassable.

Rice vows ‘new Middle East’

Lebanese officials have demanded the United States back an immediate cease-fire for the region.

President Bush has said that the United States wants to change the equation on the ground fundamentally. Bush has said that moving to an immediate cease-fire would leave the components of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in place.

After meeting with Rice on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to keep up the fight against Hezbollah.

“We will not hesitate to take the most severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians for one purpose — to kill them,” Olmert said.

At the start of her meeting with Olmert, Rice said that it’s time for “a new Middle East.”

“It is time to say to those who do not want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail, they will not,” Rice said.

In a whirlwind tour, Rice went from her meeting with Olmert to one with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Around 1,000 protesters marched to the seat of the Palestinian government to protest her visit there.

Difference of opinion on cease-fire

The Bush administration has been walking a tightrope between supporting Israel’s right to self-defense while also trying to avoid destabilizing Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government, which the United States has embraced since it came to power.

In a surprise trip Monday to Beirut, Rice conferred with Siniora and Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s parliament speaker, who has close ties with Hezbollah and Syria.

“President Bush wanted this to be my first stop — here in Lebanon — to express our desire to urgently find conditions in which we can end the violence and make life better for the Lebanese people,” she said. After a closed-door meeting, a source in the parliament speaker’s office said that Berri considered Rice’s comments “not encouraging.”

The source said Rice had wanted any cease-fire agreements, deployment of international troops, the disarming of Hezbollah, return of the displaced Lebanese and plans for reconstruction to occur at the same time.

Berri considered such a course impractical and believed that a cease-fire should come first, the source said.

U.S. officials said privately not to expect a cease-fire to come out of Rice’s mission to the Middle East.

She does not plan to meet with Hezbollah or with Syrian leaders during her trip.

Although Syria is thought to hold much influence with Hezbollah, the Bush administration has argued that direct talks with the Damascus government would be pointless.

Rice also won’t be making stops in Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, all of which sent word that she shouldn’t visit unless the United States was ready to press for an immediate cease-fire.

The secretary of state plans to head next to Rome, Italy, to meet with Arab leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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