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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We turn now to the situation in the Middle East.

The fighting continues between Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Israeli troops crossed the border for the second straight day. Fierce ground clashes have been reported. Israeli jets also launched new air strikes on the border area as well as on Beirut's southern suburbs. And today Hezbollah fired another 25 rockets into Israeli territory.

SIEGEL: United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has made an impassioned appeal for a ceasefire. He warns of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. Annan is meeting this evening with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She's preparing for a trip to the region.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. has resisted calls for a ceasefire, giving Israel time to degrade Hezbollah's military capabilities.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

In the UN Security Council today, Kofi Annan called repeatedly for a ceasefire.

Mr. KOFI ANNAN (Secretary General, United Nations): Both the deliberate targeting by Hezbollah of Israeli population centers with hundreds of indiscriminate weapons and Israel's disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop.

KELEMEN: In the absence of a ceasefire, Annan said he wants to see humanitarian corridors set up and he wants Security Council members to think about an international peacekeeping presence. UN troops currently in Lebanon, he says, don't have the mandate or even the fuel supplies to do much.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton repeated the Bush Administration's position that an immediate ceasefire doesn't make sense.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (US Ambassador United Nations): What we seek is a long-term cessation of hostilities that's part of a comprehensive change in the region and part of a real foundation for peace. No one has explained how you conduct a ceasefire with a group of terrorists.

KELEMEN: By that he means Hezbollah. The Bush administration wants to see Arab states put pressure on Syria and Iran to stop backing Hezbollah and wants to see Lebanese army troops, perhaps with some international help, in control of the country.

Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy believes that's the right approach, but he says that will require a lot of diplomacy, which he doesn't see happening right now.

Mr. DENNIS ROSS (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): You want an outcome here that not only brings this to an end. You want to ensure that Hezbollah can't be re-supplied afterwards. That means Syria has to be part of that understanding or you have to have enough of an international presence in Lebanon to be able to prevent the transfer of weaponry and whether or not you're going to be able to have enough of that kind of international presence, I'm not so sure.

KELEMEN: Ross, who helped broker ceasefires in Lebanon in the 1990s, says the Bush Administration has to get over this idea that talking to Syria would be a reward to Damascus. Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group says the US is paying the price for its policy of not talking to what it considers rogue states.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): It's cut itself off from all of the parties directly or indirectly that it would need to influence now to bring the situation back to some kind of quiet. It doesn't talk to Syria, it doesn't talk to Iran, and therefore indirectly has no leverage either with Hezbollah or with Hamas on the Palestinian arena, which is one that we seem to be neglecting these days, but it is continuing.

KELEMEN: Malley says the Bush Administration's hands off approach is becoming riskier by the day, with rising civilian casualties both in Gaza and in Lebanon and Israel's calculation in Lebanon, he says, may be wrong.

Mr. MALLEY: Hezbollah's military arsenal may not be depleted. They may have scattered their rockets well enough that they feel as they tell us that time is on their side and not on Israel's. And so you may find a situation where time goes by, our credibility in the region gets undermined, our ability to work in Lebanon where people are looking at us and wondering why we're on the sidelines gets weakened, and we've wasted very precious time.

KELEMEN: Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Walker of the Middle East Institute says President Bush already has lost credibility in the region.

Mr. EDWARD WALKER (Middle East Institute): He's been AWOL for a while now and it's time for him to step up to the plate and take some risks.

KELEMEN: Much of the president's foreign policy agenda is at stake, Walker says, including his attempts to check Iran's nuclear ambitions. The US had hoped the UN Security Council would pass a resolution on that this week, but the crisis in Lebanon is crowding the diplomatic agenda and becoming a source of conflict between the US and its allies.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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