BEIRUT, Lebanon -- International pressure mounted on the Bush administration yesterday to call for an immediate cease-fire in the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the region in search of a long-term solution to the 12-day-old conflict.
With civilian casualties in Lebanon mounting, the United States' Arab allies added their voices to the calls for a truce. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, met with President Bush in the Oval Office and delivered a letter from King Abdullah II asking him to intervene.
"We are requesting a cease-fire to allow for a cessation of hostilities," the foreign minister told reporters afterward. Saudi Arabia had earlier made it clear that it has no sympathy for the Hezbollah fighters whose abduction of two Israeli soldiers triggered Israeli attacks in Lebanon.
With no sign that the fighting is easing and U.S. officials making it clear that Rice is unlikely to press for a cease-fire in her talks with Israeli officials, it seemed unlikely that her mission would have an immediate impact on the violence in Lebanon and northern Israel. Rather, the diplomatic effort appears to be coalescing around ways to secure the region after Israel's onslaught against the militant Hezbollah movement is over, something Israeli generals have said could take weeks.
In a sign that Israel was softening its position on diplomatic proposals for a stabilization force to be deployed between the warring parties, Israel's defense minister said his nation would be prepared to accept an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, which is under the control of Hezbollah guerrillas.
"Israel's goal is to see the Lebanese army deployed along the border with Israel, but we understand that we are talking about a weak army and that in the midterm period Israel will have to accept a multinational force," Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the visiting German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, according to Israeli officials. Peretz expressed a preference for the deployment of NATO forces, not United Nations peacekeepers, in the border region, the officials said.
In Washington, U.S. officials offered a cautious endorsement of the idea of an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon, suggesting that the outlines of a solution to the crisis are beginning to take shape.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, said the United States was considering the suggestion for a multinational force but that it would not support a U.N.-led operation. He said he did not expect U.S. forces to be involved, suggesting that a NATO-led force along the lines of the one deployed in Afghanistan might be under consideration.
"We haven't discussed the possibility of U.S. boots on the ground in Lebanon," Bolton said. "The main point being to see that Hezbollah does not return to its armed, militant capacity threatening Israel and that the institutions of Lebanon cover the whole country."
The gathering diplomatic effort produced no let-up in the fighting, however, as clashes continued yesterday between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militiamen in the border region.
The Shiite guerrillas fired barrages of rockets into northern Israel, killing two people. Israeli warplanes pounded targets in Beirut's southern suburbs, in the southern towns of Tyre and Sidon, and elsewhere across the southern Lebanon region where Hezbollah militants are based.
There were reports of Israeli warplanes firing on vehicles carrying civilians trying to flee the fighting in southern Lebanon. Three people were killed when their minibus was hit, the Associated Press reported. A Lebanese photographer working for a local magazine was killed when a bomb landed near the taxi in which she was riding.
Syria also said that it supports a cease-fire, in a sign that Lebanon's neighbor and one of Hezbollah's chief sponsors is seeking a role in the budding diplomatic effort. In remarks made in Madrid, Spain, and carried by the official Syrian news agency, Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said Syria wants any cease-fire to form part of a comprehensive Middle East settlement that would include the return of the Golan Heights to Syria and a prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel.
If Israel conducts a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, Syria will help its neighbor, he warned. "If Israel invades Lebanon and enters it by land ... then we will not stand with our hands tied," Bilal said.
Rice has made it clear that she is unlikely to push for a cease-fire during her visit, except in the context of an overall settlement that includes the disarmament of Hezbollah, the Shiite movement whose guerrillas are battling Israel in southern Lebanon.
A hasty cease-fire that would permit Hezbollah to survive intact with its weapons would only lead to a resumption of attacks against Israel in the future, Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, said in Washington.
The French foreign minister and Britain's foreign secretary were in Israel for talks as the international effort to seek a diplomatic solution intensified.
The idea of a multinational force was first raised last week by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But it received a lukewarm response from Israel, which has insisted that the Lebanese army should be given sole responsibility for security in southern Lebanon.
However, the Lebanese army is weak, ill-trained, ill-equipped and prone to splitting along sectarian lines whenever Lebanon undergoes one of its periodic bouts of civil war. It is widely recognized that the army is in no position to take control of the areas now controlled by Hezbollah.
Rice will spend today meeting with Israeli leaders before heading to the West Bank for talks with Palestinian leaders. On Wednesday, she will be the host for a gathering of Arab and other international leaders in Rome.
Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.