BEIRUT, Lebanon -- As Israeli troops drove deeper into southern Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Beirut yesterday for a difficult, five-hour surprise visit with Lebanese leaders, who expressed growing frustration over the U.S. role in the conflict.
Rice, who later flew to Jerusalem, told reporters that she had begun her trip to the Middle East in Beirut "because I'm deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they're enduring. President Bush wanted me to make this the first stop."
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other senior officials made it clear to Rice that they want an immediate cease-fire and expressed dismay with what they see as implicit U.S. endorsement of Israel's continued bombardment of Hezbollah targets around the country, Lebanese officials said.
Hezbollah, a Shiite militia group, controls much of southern Lebanon, from which it has been launching missiles into northern Israel.
Rice had said before the trip that she wants to create conditions for a "sustainable" cease-fire. The 13-day-old conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 400 Lebanese and at least 41 Israelis.
Israeli troops were encountering heavy resistance as they closed in on a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon. At least four Israeli soldiers were killed and 15 wounded in the fighting.
Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, Israeli shelling killed five people and wounded several others.
Israel has sent about 3,000 troops to Lebanon's border region to drive Hezbollah from a 6-mile- wide swath of arid hills and stony valleys that Hezbollah militants have been using to fire rockets at northern Israel. Hezbollah fired more than 80 rockets yesterday at a number of Israeli communities, including Kiryat Shemona and Safed in the northern Galilee and the port of Haifa, on the Mediterranean.
Israel's military reported that at least one person was seriously injured in the rocket barrages.
Yesterday's fighting also saw Israel's first capture of prisoners in the conflict - two Hezbollah guerrillas who were seized near the town of Bint Jbeil, according to military sources. Israel might be able to use them as leverage in any prisoner swap involving its own soldiers. The current fighting began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight troops in a cross-border raid July 12.
Two convoys carrying generators for hospitals, food and medical supplies left Beirut yesterday for the besieged southern city of Tyre and the town of Marjayoun, although Israel has yet to announce a safe route into the region for relief aid.
Rice's visit to Beirut, a city still under intermittent Israeli fire, was intended to show U.S. support for the fragile Lebanese government. The Bush administration would like to see the Lebanese government gain the strength to disarm Hezbollah, which holds two Cabinet ministries and 14 seats in parliament.
The show of U.S. concern for the Lebanese came as many Arabs are siding with Hezbollah, and some allied Arab governments are nervous about doing business with a U.S. leadership that appears to have given Israel a green light for military operations.
In London, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki broke ranks with U.S. and British allies and warned that the continued international tolerance of civilian casualties in Lebanon would spread extremism that could endanger Arab regimes throughout the Middle East.
"I am afraid there will be a great push toward fundamentalism, and also a message - a negative one - to all those who want to follow the course of peace," said al-Maliki. "We will go back to zero, to actions and reactions."
For security reasons, the Rice team had concealed its intention to go to Beirut, and had announced that its first stop would be Jerusalem. Rice's plane flew to Cyprus, from which her team was carried by U.S. military helicopters to Beirut.
There, the secretary of state met with officials of all of Lebanon's major religious and ethnic groups, aides said.
Rice met with Siniora for two hours in downtown Beirut, thanking him "for your courage and steadfastness." Then her motorcade rushed along the Beirut shoreline to Shiite-dominated West Beirut. There, she visited Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of the Lebanese parliament and an ally of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Berri told Rice and her aides that they should try to end the conflict with an immediate cease-fire and prisoner swap. Lebanese officials said Rice told Berri that Hezbollah must first release the two Israeli prisoners and withdraw its forces at least 12 miles from the border with Israel. U.S. officials denied that Rice had demanded a 12-mile buffer.
In addition to his connection to Hezbollah, Berri has political connections with Syria, widely seen as a potential broker to halt the violence in Lebanon.
Yesterday evening, Rice met for dinner in Jerusalem with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister. Rice noted that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's condition has taken a turn for the worse, and said that "the prayers of the American people are with him. We pray for his full recovery."
After consultations today with Israeli officials and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Rice is scheduled to go to Rome for a meeting with Europeans, Arabs and other world leaders on the Middle East war.
David Welch, an assistant secretary of state, expressed confidence in the day's diplomacy, saying that the United States is "now firmly in the picture and leading the diplomacy."
He denied that the talks with Berri were contentious, but acknowledged that Berri was emotional in describing the damage to Lebanon during 13 days of fighting.
Rice made few public comments during the visit to Beirut, and gave no hint of U.S. negotiating goals. But aides said the talks are aimed at reaching an agreement that would allow world powers to help the Lebanese government suppress Hezbollah and extend its control into southern Lebanon, where it now has no presence.
In remarks to reporters in Tel Aviv, Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, said Israel is interested in diplomacy only after it achieves its military goals.
"The military moves will create the scope for the diplomatic moves," he said. "We have no intention of allowing the diplomatic agreements to derive from weakness - no way."
Welch said the United States intends to contribute $30 million toward an international relief fund that is aimed at raising $100 million to $150 million. The United States is contributing medical kits for 100,000 people, 20,000 blankets and 2,000 plastic sheets.
The focus of the Israeli offensive yesterday was Bint Jbeil, a regional center of Hezbollah support about 2 1/2 miles from the border. Between 100 and 200 Hezbollah fighters were said to be there.
The Israeli casualties included two soldiers killed when their tanks were hit by Hezbollah fire and two pilots who died after their helicopter was either shot down or crashed not far from the border, according to an Israeli army spokesman.
Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, head of the army's operations branch, said Israeli forces were encountering fire from a type of anti-tank missile employed by Syrian forces, which he said underscored Syria's support for Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said Israeli forces have used artillery-fired cluster munitions in populated areas of Lebanon.
The rights group's researchers said cluster munitions were used on the village of Blida on July 19, killing one person and wounding at least 12, including seven children.
The Israeli army said it was checking into the group's allegations, but added that the weapons were legal under international standards.
Paul Richter and Ken Ellingwood write for the Los Angeles Times.