BEIRUT, Lebanon – In a surprise visit to Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the beleaguered prime minister of Lebanon on Monday for his courage in struggling to contain the fighting between the Hezbollah militia and Israel.
Rice met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks. Rice told him, "Thank you for your courage and steadfastness."
Saniora told Rice he was glad to have her in Lebanon, adding that his government is looking to "put an end to the war that is being inflicted on Lebanon." The two shook hands across a conference table on which there were two flags, one Lebanese and one American. Half a dozen other diplomats sat around the table.
Rice also paid a short visit to the speaker of Lebanon's parliament, Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Going into the session at Berri's lavish office and residence, Rice said, "I am deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they are enduring. I am obviously concerned about the humanitarian situation."
Rice said President Bush wanted her to make Lebanon the first stop on her trip to the region. It was her third visit to Lebanon and was intended to make a show of support and concern for both the Saniora government and the Lebanese people, administration officials said.
Saniora and other Lebanese officials have been pushing Rice to call for an immediate cease-fire, something the Bush administration has resisted on grounds that would not address the root causes of hostilities — Hezbollah's domination of south Lebanon.
"We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal," Rice told reporters traveling with her.
She is also seeking more humanitarian aid for Lebanon, and is expected to announce additional U.S. financial aid. But her mission took a dramatic turn with her surprise arrival here under stringent security.
Under heavy guard, Rice flew by helicopter over the Mediterranean from Cyprus. Her motorcade sped through Beirut on the way to her meeting with Saniora.
R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Monday that Rice will seek to use "our influence to see if there can be a cessation of hostilities."
However, he told CBS' "The Early Show," any cease-fire would have to be long-lasting and involve a removal of Hezbollah rockets on the Israeli-Lebanese border and a return of Israeli soldiers taken captive.
En route to the region, Rice discussed the role of Syria, which the U.S. considers one of the world's state sponsors of terror. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has blamed it, along with Iran, for stoking the recent violence in the Middle East by encouraging the Lebanese Hezbollah militia to attack northern Israel.
Rice pointed out that there are existing channels for talking with Syrian leaders about resolving the Mideast crisis when they're ready to talk.
"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians. It's that the Syrians haven't acted," she said. "I think this is simply just a kind of false hobby horse that somehow it's because we don't talk to the Syrians.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are working to entice Syria to end support for Hezbollah, a move that is central to resolving the conflict in Lebanon and unhitching Damascus from its alliance with Iran, the Shiite Muslim guerrillas' other main backer.
Arab diplomats in Cairo said the United States had signaled a willingness to re-engage Syria through Washington's encouragement of the Egyptians and Saudis to lean on Damascus to stop backing Hezbollah.
In a brazen raid into Israel on July 12, Hezbollah killed eight and captured two Israeli soldiers, provoking Israel's biggest military campaign against Lebanon in 24 years. The fighting has left hundreds of civilians dead, mostly in Lebanon.
Rice and President Bush have resisted pressure for an immediate cease-fire, saying that any peace agreement must come with right conditions to ensure that it is sustainable. They particularly want to see an agreement that would help Lebanon control its entire territory, including the southern third that is dominated by Hezbollah.
Arabic for "Party of God," Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political party with its own militia. Funded by Iran, Syria and other individual donors around the globe, it fills gaps left by Lebanon's weak government and provides the bulk of the health care, schools and other social services in southern Lebanon.
Yet Rice said any cease fire agreement would have to be signed by Lebanon, not Hezbollah.
"If there is a cessation of hostilities, the government of Lebanon is going to have to be the party," she said. "Let's treat the government of Lebanon as the sovereign government that it is."
Rice has tried to walk delicately between supporting the democratic government of Lebanon, while also not dictating to its ally Israel how it should handle its own security. Her posture has frustrated numerous allies.