WASHINGTON – The United States looked past disagreements with allies over the timing of a cease-fire in the Middle East on Thursday, focusing instead on the makeup and mandate of a peacekeeping force that ultimately could patrol southern Lebanon.
The Bush administration also sought ways to increase the flow of U.S. and international assistance to desperate Lebanese, though President Bush declined to criticize Israel for tactics that have killed hundreds and displaced thousands in a battle with Hezbollah.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Malaysia for an Asian regional conference, is expected to return to the Mideast this weekend. She is expected in Israel for meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday, said Western diplomats who asked not to be identified because Rice's travel plans have not been announced. At least one other stop is also likely.
Though a cease-fire is still to come, U.S. planning is turning to the possible aftermath.
A senior political aide to Rice huddled with European Union diplomats Thursday in Brussels, Belgium, to help organize what would probably be an international peacekeeping force dominated by European troops. The French, once a colonial power in Lebanon, may lead the force.
"I don't anticipate American combat power, combat forces, being used in this force," Rice told reporters en route to the Asia conference.
Her political aide, State Department counselor Philip Zelikow, was also expected to see NATO officials in Europe, department spokesman Tom Casey said.
"This is looking toward how we go about designing and organizing the international force that was agreed upon" at the Rome session Rice attended with European and Arab diplomats on Wednesday, Casey said.
Senior White House and State Department Mideast aides were in Israel on Thursday for meetings on the international force and other issues with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Rice is cutting short the Asia trip and told reporters she was "willing and ready to go back to the Middle East at any time" to work for a sustainable peace plan and to smooth the delivery of humanitarian supplies.
Rice is not expected to press Olmert for a quick end to Israel's assault, despite international pressure to limit civilian deaths and a mild rebuke to Israel issued by the United Nations Security Council on Thursday over bombing of a U.N. post in Lebanon that killed four unarmed military observers.
Lebanese leaders have been disappointed with the diplomatic mission Rice began with a visit to Beirut on Monday. They have repeatedly asked for help bringing the fighting to an immediate end, and have supporters ranging from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Vatican.
Israel wants more time to disable as much of Hezbollah's fighting power as possible in southern Lebanon and Beirut. U.S. and other Western officials say Israel's latest estimates that fighting could last for several more weeks may be unrealistic in light of world opinion.
"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 democracy," Bush said at the White House. "Our objective is to make sure that those who use terrorist tactics are not rewarded."
The 16-day-old Israeli offensive, which began after Hezbollah crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers, continued Thursday as Bush spoke.
The Bush administration also sees the fighting as an opportunity to indirectly punish Iran and Syria for their support of Hezbollah, listed by the U.S. as a terror group.
"Hezbollah attacked Israel. I know Hezbollah is connected to Iran," Bush said. "Now is the time for the world to confront this danger," Bush said.
Bush said he hoped to see the violence end "as quickly as possible" and repeated his call for Israel to try to limit the impact on civilians. But he suggested that the Israeli campaign has his support for as long as it takes to eliminate Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon and its ability to attack neighbor Israel.
Israel's government on Thursday called up at least 30,000 troops to begin training for duty in its offensive. Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said world leaders, in failing to call for an immediate cease-fire during a Rome summit, gave Israel a green light to push harder to wipe out Hezbollah.
Lebanese Health Minister Jawad Khalifeh said an estimated 600 killed included 150-200 civilians believed to be buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings.
The toll was a jump from previous Health Ministry reports of around 400 killed, based on bodies received at Lebanese hospitals. More than 50 Israelis have died.
U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, seeking confirmation to the post he now holds temporarily, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iranians are Hezbollah's "paymasters, and they're calling the tune."
He stood by estimates that Iran contributes $100 million annually to the Shiite Islamic militants, who have supplanted Lebanon's central government as the effective political and military force in the southern region bordering Israel.
"It's not realistic to think that you can have an effective government where there's an armed group operating within the state functioning as if it's its own government," Bolton said, "controlling its own territory, using its own weapons, and functioning at the behest in many cases of foreign governments."