Bush, Blair urge multinational force to quell violence in Lebanon, enforce eventual cease-fire
WASHINGTON – This time they knew the microphones were on. And there still wasn’t much difference between them on opposition to an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East.President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged quicker diplomacy on Friday to end the fighting between Israelis and Hezbollah guerrillas, followed by a multinational force to speed humanitarian relief and help maintain peace in southern Lebanon.Bush said he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to the Mideast on Saturday to negotiate terms with Israeli and Lebanese leaders so that the United Nations could begin discussing such a force on Monday.Blair had been under pressure at home to press Bush to support an immediate cease-fire, as many other European and Arab leaders have advocated. But at a joint news conference at the White House, both leaders reiterated their opposition to any hasty cease-fire that wouldn’t lead to a sustainable peace.”This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East,” Bush said, standing alongside Blair in the East Room. “Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region.”It was their third meeting in two months, and first since they were caught unawares by a live mike during a lunch in Russia at which they candidly discussed the Mideast crisis.As Middle East violence raged for a 17th day, Bush and Blair said that the makeup of the multinational force would be discussed at a U.N. meeting Monday called by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The force would both lead to stability and help speed the safe delivery of humanitarian aid, they said.”We agree that a multinational force must be dispatched to Lebanon quickly to augment a Lebanese army as it moves to the south of that country,” Bush said.Israel’s punishing campaign of airstrikes, artillery shelling and clashes, which began after Hezbollah crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers, has killed an estimated 600 Lebanese. More than 50 Israelis have died, most of them soldiers.Even so, “the stakes are larger than just Lebanon,” Bush said.Blair called the fighting “a complete tragedy for Lebanon, for Israel and for the wider region.”The president said his and Blair’s goal was a U.N. resolution “setting out a clear framework for cessation of hostilities on an urgent basis, and mandating the multinational force.”But many issues surrounding the makeup of such a force and its mandate remained to be defined. And Blair indicated its authority would clearly be limited.International forces could go in only after a suitable cease-fire and not have “to fight their way in,” Blair said.”This can only work,” he said, if Hezbollah is “prepared to allow it to work.”Both leaders said the force would work in conjunction with the Lebanese army.”The purpose of it, obviously, is to help stabilize the situation,” Blair said. “But it’s also to allow the government of Lebanon’s true armed forces to come down from the north and occupy the south themselves.”A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said other possible elements of a proposal for the ending the conflict included:- Disarming Hezbollah and integrating the guerrilla force into the Lebanese army.- Urging Hezbollah to return Israeli prisoners.- A commitment to resolve the status of Chebaa Farms, a small piece of land held by Israel and claimed by Lebanon.- Setting up a “no-go” buffer zone in southern Lebanon.- An international reconstruction plan for Lebanon.In Lebanon Friday, Israeli attacks hit Hezbollah positions and crushed houses and roads in southern Lebanon, killing up to 12 people. Hezbollah said it fired a new kind of rocket, which landed deeper inside Israel than hundreds of earlier strikes.A U.S.-chartered cruise ship left Beirut for Cyprus in the last officially scheduled departure of Americans fleeing the fighting. Some 15,000 – many of them dual citizens – have left.At the White House, neither Bush nor Blair advocated the immediate cease-fire that many European and Middle Eastern leaders want.”We’ve got to resolve the immediate situation,” Blair said. “But we shouldn’t be in any doubt at all – that will be a temporary respite unless we put in place the longer-term framework.”Blair is under growing pressure at home for Britain to distance itself from its longtime ally and call for an immediate end to violence between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas based in southern Lebanon. If Blair did that in his private meeting with Bush in the Oval Office and lunch, there was no indication of it in his news conference remarks.Bush and Blair were asked what message they had for Iran and Syria – both sponsors of Hezbollah. The Bush administration has refused to negotiate directly with either Iran or Syria.Bush said Iran should abandon all nuclear aspirations. He added, “My message to Syria is: Become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace.”Blair said his message was “that you have a choice. Iran and Syria have a choice. And they may think that they can avoid this choice. In fact, they can’t.”U.S. officials say European troops would probably dominate a multinational force.”I don’t anticipate American combat power, combat forces, being used in this force,” Rice told reporters while traveling to Malaysia for an Asian regional conference. She was there when she got the word that Bush wanted her back in the Middle East.Blair has also ruled out contributing British forces, citing Britain’s former role as a colonial power in the region.It was Blair’s second White House visit in two months – and the two men’s first meeting since earlier this month at the Group of Eight summit of world powers in St. Petersburg, Russia.There, Bush and Blair had a candid lunch chat on topics including the Middle East, unaware that a microphone was live.In a playful moment, Bush opened Friday’s news conference by telling Blair: “As you know, we’ve got a close relationship. You tell me what you think. You share with me your perspective. And you let me know when the microphone is on.” Bush tapped the mike in front of him and drew a hearty laugh from Blair.Bush apologized to Blair over the U.S. failure to declare two aircraft were carrying 28 laser-guided missiles bound for Israel when they refueled at a Scottish airport last weekend, according to Blair’s spokesman. British officials had protested the incident.Blair’s official spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity as is the British custom, said Bush apologized that proper procedures were not followed. “It was a gracious thing to do,” the spokesman said.—Associated Press writer Katherine Shrader, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.