Rice Jousts with Diplomats on Lebanon Solution

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joins European and Mideast leaders to talk about the conflict in Lebanon at a conference in Rome. Proposals to end the fighting have focused on deploying an international military force to keep the peace between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

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DON GONYEA, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea, in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Rome. She's meeting with her counterparts from Europe and the Middle East to discuss ways to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

More than 400 people in Lebanon and nearly 50 people in Israel have been killed during two weeks of bombardments and clashes.

And yesterday, an Israeli airstrike killed four U.N. observers at an outpost in southern Lebanon. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has condemned what he termed the, quote, apparent deliberate targeting of a U.N. post. Israel's prime minister has expressed regret and says there will be a full investigation.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins me now from Rome. And, Sylvia, what else did Kofi Annan have to say about that attack? I mean, those are pretty strong words.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Well, in a statement he said it was on a clearly marked U.N. post and it occurred despite personal assurances he had gotten from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that U.N. positions would be spared. The attack will certainly increase pressure for a speedy end to the fighting.

MONTAGNE: Besides Kofi Annan and Condoleezza Rice, who else is involved in this one-day meeting?

POGGIOLI: Oh, it's a huge contingent. Along with the Italian hosts there are representatives of several European and Arab countries, of Russia and Turkey, as well as World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz. Lebanon is represented by its prime minister, Fuad Siniora, and four other ministers. But Israel and the proxy players Syria and Iran are not represented here.

MONTAGNE: And they're expected to achieve what, if anything, in this meeting?

POGGIOLI: Well, the two major items on the agenda are a cease-fire and the deployment of an international military force in southern Lebanon. Many of the Europeans and Arabs, as well as the U.N. secretary-general, are pushing for an immediate cease-fire. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists that any truce would have to be part of a wider deal that includes Hezbollah's withdrawal from the Lebanese-Israeli border and the deployment of an international force. Israel has made clear it won't agree to a cease-fire until Hezbollah's military positions are dismantled. However, there is a growing consensus, including for the first time Israel's, on the deployment of an international military force.

MONTAGNE: Now, this international force that's being talked about, what entity would lead it? And what countries might take part?

POGGIOLI: Well, the who, the how, and the when are still up in the air, as well as the mandate. And each party has set down specific conditions. The U.S. and Britain have already declined, saying they're overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. Germany says it will contribute troops but insists that Hezbollah agrees, and that's not very likely. The Israelis have suggested a NATO-led force, but many Europeans feel NATO is too closely associated with the United States to be considered neutral in the region. France would prefer a U.N.-led force, but many analysts say that would be too weak.

Other key issues are the size of the force - there's been talk of between 10,000 and 30,000 troops - and whether the force would be deployed before or after the disarming of Hezbollah.

Italy is suggesting it be deployed as soon as possible to create what are called humanitarian corridors to help evacuate refugees from southern Lebanon.

MONTAGNE: So what does this all add up to, that the U.S. and the Europeans are on what you might call a collision course, somewhat like before the war in Iraq?

POGGIOLI: I think the situation is different this time. The tone among Europeans is much less strident than usual. Despite criticizing Israeli military force in Lebanon, the Israeli position against Hezbollah has received considerable support in Europe.

So the U.S. and European positions are also getting closer thanks to their mutual concern over Syria's support for Hezbollah and Iran's growing clout in the region, and fears that Iran could become a nuclear power.

The Western powers are joined by several Arab leaders that unexpectedly have publicly condemned Hezbollah's attacks on Israel. That reflects those countries fears of the growing Shiite influence in the region.

The conference here will have to deal with a lot of conflicting demands, but the novelty is a new strategic convergence between the U.S., the European Union, and some Arab countries.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome where foreign ministers are meeting for a one-day international conference on the fighting in the Middle East.

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