July 23, 2006

Rice says Lebanon-Israeli ceasefire is urgent

By Sue Pleming

SHANNON (Reuters) - On a mission to avert full-scale war in
the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said
there was an urgent need for a ceasefire in southern Lebanon
but conditions had to be right.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday as she flew to the region,
Rice said her focus would also be to ease the humanitarian
crisis after nearly two weeks of fighting between Hizbollah
guerrillas in Lebanon and Israeli forces.

"It is very important to establish conditions under which a
ceasefire can take place. We believe that a ceasefire is
urgent. It is important to have conditions that will make it
also sustainable," said Rice before a refueling stop in
Shannon, Ireland.

Her trip includes stops in Jerusalem and the Palestinian
Territories.

Before leaving Washington, Rice met Saudi Arabia's Foreign
Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the White House where he
pressed President George W. Bush to agree to an immediate
ceasefire in southern Lebanon.

Bush has so far resisted calling for an immediate
ceasefire, saying Israel has a right to defend itself and a
cessation of hostilities must address the root causes of the
conflict.

After pressure from the Saudis, Rice seemed to take a
softer line than last Friday when she said an immediate
ceasefire would be a "false promise" that would let Hizbollah
reemerge to attack Israel.

Rice said conditions for a ceasefire included that the
Lebanese government must have total sovereignty over its land
and Hizbollah must not be allowed to use its territory to
"plunge Lebanon and the region into war."

FRAMEWORK CEASEFIRE

Elements of a framework ceasefire deal had been discussed
with the United Nations, the Israelis and the Lebanese, said
Rice. She declined to provide further details of such a deal,
which will be hammered out both in the region and at a
conference on Lebanon slated for Rome on Wednesday.

"The really important thing here is that whatever we do it
has to contribute toward Lebanon's regaining sovereignty over
all its territory," said Rice.

Rice has been criticized by analysts for embarking on this
trip too late and for not using it to meet top officials from
Syria, which backs Hizbollah along with Iran. Syria said Sunday
it was ready for direct dialogue with Washington over Lebanon.

Rice said she wanted to "correct" the perception her
government had no contact with Syria, pointing out Washington
had a diplomatic mission in Damascus.

"We have talked to the Syrians over and over again," she
said. "The problem is not that people have not talked to the
Syrians but that the Syrians have not acted," she said.

Rice is scheduled to go on to Malaysia for meetings with
Asian ministers after her Middle East trip and she said she was
prepared to return to the region on her way home if it would
help push the process forward.

Senior Bush administration officials will stay behind in
Jerusalem while Rice is in Malaysia to press all sides to reach
a ceasefire and to discuss the humanitarian crisis.

Many Arab nations believe the United States has not put
enough pressure on Israel to avoid civilian casualties in
Lebanon, where more than 369 people have been killed since
Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid
on July 12. Thirty-seven Israelis have been killed.

Rice reiterated the U.S. view that Israel had a right to
defend itself and called for restraint on all sides. Asked to
comment on an Israeli newspaper report that the United States
had given Israel a week to continue pounding Hizbollah, she
said this was not true.