No consensus in Lebanon cease-fire talks
ROME - Top U.S. and European officials agreed Wednesday on urgent action to halt the fighting in Lebanon and on the creation of a multinational force to keep the peace. But the two sides had starkly divergent views of what that means.
Most Europeans want Israel to stop its offensive against Hezbollah now — which would leave Hezbollah battered but defiant. The United States wants to give Israel more time to pound the militia into submission as part of the wider war on terror.
The foreign ministers and other senior officials from 15 nations, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and representatives from the European Union and the World Bank, agreed in Rome on a declaration that expressed "deep concern" for the high number of civilian casualties in Lebanon, where government officials say hundreds of people have been killed.
Deep differences in an approach to the crisis, however, were abundantly clear.
In the presence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema alluded to the discord in post-conference comments. He said many participants appealed for an immediate and unconditional truce "to reach, with utmost urgency, a cease-fire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities."
Rice, for her part, deflected pressure to lean on Israel to end its 2-week-old offensive, insisting that any cease-fire must be "sustainable" and that there could be "no return to the status quo ante."
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who attended and issued a dramatic appeal for peace, had difficultly containing his disappointment. He said the Rome conference made "some progress," but pleaded with world leaders to keep working toward a cease-fire.
Saniora said the violence has brought his country, still rebuilding from its 1975-1990 civil war, "to its knees."
The Lebanese leader recognized that Israel's offensive had been sparked by Hezbollah's incursion across the "blue line" — the border recognized by the United Nations — when it killed eight soldiers and kidnapped two, but added that the military campaign was "disproportionate."
The Western-leaning moderate also appealed to Israel to enter a peace process with all its Arab neighbors — striking a markedly different tone from many previous Lebanese leaders.
The Rome conference did clinch a consensus on establishing a new multinational force for southern Lebanon — one far tougher than the existing, three-decade-old UNIFIL operation which has lacked a mandate to prevent hostilities.
"What we agreed upon is that there should be an international force under a U.N. mandate that will have a strong and robust capability to help bring about peace, to help provide the ability for humanitarian efforts to go forward and to bring an end to the violence," Rice told reporters.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi put a positive spin on the conference, saying in an interview with The Associated Press that "what could be achieved was achieved."
Prodi insisted Washington wasn't fully isolated with its insistence that a cease-fire should accompany a durable peace, including disarming of the Hezbollah militias. He said the United States received support from Britain and acceptance from Germany that an immediate truce wasn't in the works.
Ultimately, Washington's position seemed sustainable largely because the others — despite shock at the scale of destruction and hundreds of civilians killed — largely supported the goal of disarming Hezbollah and extending the control of the Lebanese government to the south, which the militia has in effect controlled for years.
D'Alema urged Hezbollah to release the Israeli soldiers whose capture helped ignite the latest hostilities.
"It's a gesture that could be done while asking Israel to make the same step, but it could be a way to bring the end of hostilities closer," D'Alema told Italian state TV Wednesday evening.
Prodi said the force must be "sizable" and drawn from a number of countries. He pledged that Italy would commit troops if it has a U.N. mandate.
Israel, which did not attend, said it expected those at the Rome conference to follow up and take action to support Lebanon's army and turn it into a force capable of disarming Hezbollah.
"Israel is forced to continue to defend its citizens, because of the failure to implement these resolutions so far," said a statement released by Israel's Foreign Ministry.
Israeli officials have expressed support in principle for the deployment of an international force, recognizing that the weak Lebanese government could not likely subdue the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah without assistance.
Rice said the force's mandate would be discussed "over the next ... several days." She added: "We also have asked that those meetings be held urgently so that force can be put together."
In Brussels, EU officials said a meeting of European foreign ministers would be held next Tuesday to discuss the violence.
Annan said the emerging force would help Lebanon assert its authority and implement existing U.N. resolutions, which would ultimately leave Hezbollah disarmed.
"We all committed to dedicated and urgent action to try to bring about an end to violence that would be sustainable" and leave the Lebanese government in full control of its territory, Rice told reporters. She also pointed a finger at Iran and Syria, which she accused of stoking the violence.