Israel says world OKs its campaign


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The Israeli government authorized the call-up of as many as 15,000 reservists yesterday, as a senior official asserted that the lack of an international consensus on a cease-fire in Lebanon amounted to "permission from the world" for Israel's campaign against Hezbollah.

But the Israeli government decided, at least for now, against widening the offensive in Lebanon, even though the decision on reservists suggested that option was still on the table.

While Israeli warplanes hit targets throughout Lebanon, including an army base and a radio relay station, Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets into towns along Israel's northern border. No one was reported seriously injured.

And Israeli ground forces continued battling for control of a strategic Hezbollah stronghold about 2 1/2 miles inside Lebanon, where nine Israeli soldiers died a day earlier.

The large-scale Israeli troop call-up came the day after a meeting of high-level diplomats failed to result in a demand for an immediate cease-fire, which Israel interpreted as a go-ahead to continue its offensive, Israeli officials said.

The meeting in Rome ended inconclusively, with the United States and Britain willing to give Israel more time to pursue Hezbollah while most European leaders urged an immediate cease-fire.

"We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world to continue this operation, this war, until Hezbollah isn't present in Lebanon, and until it is disarmed," Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Israel's Army Radio. "Everyone understands that a victory for Hezbollah is a victory for world terror."

At the White House, President Bush was asked whether he agreed with Ramon's comments.

"I believe this. I believe that the Middle East is littered with agreements that just didn't work," he said. "And now is the time to address the root cause of the problem. And the root cause of the problem is terrorist groups trying to stop the advance of democracies."

Bush spoke on the same day al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, vowed that his network would attack Israel and U.S. targets to avenge the offensives against Lebanon and Gaza.

Hezbollah's strongest backers, Syria and Iran, were holding meetings in Damascus yesterday, though it was not clear whether the talks in the Syrian capital were intended to rein in the militia or encourage it to intensify the fight against Israel.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also arrived in Damascus yesterday, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah, which quoted Syrian official sources.

The newspaper said Nasrallah arrived wearing plain clothes, rather than his normal clerical vestments, and was escorted toward an expected meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in a car belonging to the Syrian intelligence services.

In Israel, participants at a meeting yesterday of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "security Cabinet" initially said that government ministers authorized the mobilization of three reserve divisions. A division has 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers.

The army chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, later told a news conference the call-up would involve a total of about 15,000 reservists. He described the step as meant to "prepare us for all options."

The government's authorization of such a large call-up of reservists doesn't necessarily mean that it will occur, only that defense officials and senior commanders have the power to set it in motion and issue calls for reservists to report for duty.

Since the start of the offensive, the army has mobilized up to 18,000 reservists, according to Israeli media reports; the army does not release the precise numbers being called up.

In yesterday's meeting of Olmert's top advisers on military and national security, Olmert insisted that Israel was attaining its war goals, participants said. But there was heated debate about whether Israel's air and ground onslaught was working, and the advisers did not authorize a broader offensive.

In his radio comments, Ramon also offered a greater glimpse of the Israeli thinking on the question of how to avoid military casualties on a scale of those suffered Wednesday in fighting in the town of Bint Jbail and the adjacent village of Maroun al-Ras.

Asked about the intense aerial bombardment of villages and the endangering of their civilian populations before a possible movement of troops into the area, Ramon replied: "These places are not villages. They are military bases from which Hezbollah people are hiding, and from which they are operating."

A senior military officer also appeared to cast at least some of the blame on those civilians who were unable or unwilling to take to the perilous roads leading out of their villages.

"Those who stay have apparently decided to take the risk, or are being held by Hezbollah, which has accepted the risk on their behalf," said Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, head of the army's northern command headquarters. "We have no intention of hitting innocent civilians and will do all possible to avoid harming them, but the fighting has a price."

Israel has ordered people in a swath of south Lebanon extending up to the Litani River - about 15 miles from the border - to leave their homes, but many are trapped, and many have found themselves caught in airstrikes when they obey the directive and try to flee.

In Israel, a volley of more than 80 Hezbollah rockets fell across the country's northern tier, leaving 19 people with minor injuries. One set a factory on fire in the border town of Kiryat Shemona, sending leaping flames and choking smoke skyward. No one was inside at the time.

For the fourth day, Israeli ground forces continued battling for control of Bint Jbail, a key regional center of Hezbollah support that the army says is used for launching Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.

In a briefing for reporters in Safat, Brig. Gen. Shuki Shahar said the army was also operating in four other villages along the border as part of Israel's move to push Hezbollah guerrillas from a 1.2-mile strip along the border.

He said the purpose of the Bint Jbail battle was to control the town, not to occupy it. In other matters, Shahar said the airstrike Wednesday that killed four U.N. observers at their outpost in El Khiyam came after an Israeli commander mistakenly approved the position as a target.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan accused Israel of hitting the post deliberately, and yesterday the U.N. Security Council issued a statement saying it was "deeply shocked" by the bombing.

An army spokesman said the incident was under investigation.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said "intensive efforts" were under way to free an Israeli soldier whose capture June 25 prompted Israel to launch its monthlong offensive in Gaza.

Israeli strikes yesterday killed three Palestinians there, bringing the two-day death toll to 26.

Laura King and J. Michael Kennedy write for the Los Angeles Times. King reported from Jerusalem and Kennedy from Beirut.

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