Rice returns to Mideast, hopeful that fighting can be halted


JERUSALEM -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to the Middle East yesterday expressing optimism about the prospects for ending more than two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

Rice, who was back in Jerusalem just three days after she left the region, hailed reports from Lebanon that Hezbollah is looking for a deal as "most certainly a positive step." The militant group's position is still far from what the Bush administration has sought, however, and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was anything but conciliatory yesterday as he issued new threats.

Still, for the first time, Rice said she saw momentum toward a settlement.

"I assume and believe that officials on both sides of the crisis want it to end," she told reporters aboard her plane as she flew from Malaysia to Jerusalem, where she met last night with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israeli officials spoke, though in highly circumspect terms, of a potentially shortened timetable for the offensive in Lebanon, which has killed 400 to 600 Lebanese, most of them civilians, in the past 18 days. Nineteen Israeli civilians and 33 soldiers have been killed since the fighting broke out July 12.

Many Israeli military commanders, and some senior aides to Olmert, believe Israel should continue and even intensify its military campaign. But there was growing acknowledgment of strong outside pressure to do otherwise.

Yesterday, clashes in the border zone eased. Israel pulled back its forces from the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, a former Hezbollah stronghold about two miles north of the frontier that was the scene of heavy fighting last week. But movement of Israeli troops and armor could be seen overnight near the Israeli town of Metulla, suggesting another incursion might be imminent from there.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported on its Web site today that in the wake of Rice's talks with Olmert, "it is assumed at the Defense Ministry that Israel has seven to 10 days" to continue the offensive.

Heightening tensions, Israel also made its closest strikes yet to the Syrian border. A series of airstrikes late yesterday and early today on the Lebanese side of the frontier forced the closing of the main remaining transit point between Lebanon and Syria.

In a televised speech aired shortly after Rice landed in Jerusalem, Nasrallah threatened to use longer-range missiles to strike at Israel's densely populated center if the offensive in Lebanon was not stopped. Hezbollah rocket attacks have been confined to a swath extending about 30 miles south of the frontier, but the group claims to have missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv, 75 miles from the border.

Nasrallah dismissed the secretary of state's visit as a mission for Israel, saying, "Rice is returning to the region to try to impose her conditions on Lebanon again to serve her own Middle East project and Israel's goals."

A day before Rice's return to the region, Hezbollah political leaders in Beirut formally expressed their support for a Lebanese government peace plan. The proposal calls for an immediate cease-fire and a swap of Lebanese and Israeli prisoners. But it does not directly address the issue of disarming the Shiite Muslim group, which the United States and Israel consider essential.

Paul Richter and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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