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U.S. at Odds With Allies on Mideast Conflict

Citing Civilian Casualties, European Nations and U.N. Eager for Cease-Fire
Robin Wright and Colum Lynch
THE WASHINGTON POST

The United States faces growing tensions with allies over its support of Israel's military campaign to cripple Hezbollah, amid calls for a cease-fire to help with the mounting humanitarian crisis.

European allies are particularly alarmed about the disproportionately high civilian death toll in Lebanon. They are also concerned that the U.S. position will increase tensions between the Islamic world and the West by fueling militants, playing into the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and adding to the problems of the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq.

"What there needs to be now is a cessation of hostilities," U.N. Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown told reporters yesterday. "The Middle East is littered with the results of people believing there are military solutions to political problems in the region." He said civilians are "very unfairly bearing the greatest brunt of the conflict."

The fragile Lebanese government has pleaded for a cease-fire, and France has urged the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for an end to hostilities, proposing political and security measures. France also has called for "humanitarian corridors" to guarantee safety for civilians fleeing areas under fire.

More than 500,000 people -- about one in eight in a country smaller than Connecticut -- have been displaced, according to the Lebanese government.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will head to the United Nations tonight to begin talks on the crisis and a possible stabilization force along the border. Few specifics have been developed about the goals, size, location and timing of such a force, U.N. and European officials said.

The United Nations has floated the idea of expanding a 2,000-strong U.N. force that has been in Lebanon since Israel's first incursion, in 1978. But Israel and the United States say that option is not viable.

Rice is now expected to travel to the Middle East as soon as this weekend, but with a limited listening mission in Israel and Egypt. The United States is still struggling to define the timing and purpose of her mission. She is tentatively expected to leave a team behind in Israel, head on to Malaysia for a conference of Southeast Asian nations, and possibly return to the Middle East for further negotiations if her team can put the right "building blocks" in place, a U.S. official said.

The United States is increasingly out of sync with key allies, however, because it remains content to allow Israel to pound Hezbollah, both to remove it as a threat and to undermine the region's extremist movements and hard-line regimes.

European nations and U.N. officials are eager for a cease-fire or "pause" to allow Lebanese civilians to move to safer areas and investigate diplomatic avenues, as well as prevent other Middle East hot spots from becoming inflamed, European envoys said.

"The one thing that is guaranteed to send the Arab world and the Persian world over the edge is for the U.S. to be seen ultimately to be doing what they always believed -- to be fully in cahoots with Israel," said a European official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic relations. "The danger of allowing it to continue is that the United States is more and more despised. It's not like the U.S. had a good reputation within the region to start with."

The White House vehemently denied it is coordinating with Israel or "sitting around at the war map saying 'Do this, this and this,' " press secretary Tony Snow said. "We're not colluding, we're not cooperating, we're not conspiring, we're not doing any of that," he told reporters. "The Israelis are doing what they think is necessary to protect their borders."

The State Department also tried to stress the basic international agreement on Hezbollah as the cause of the conflict. "I don't think anybody disagrees on the desire to end the violence in the region, but let's remember what the root causes of the violence are," spokesman Sean McCormack said.

But underscoring the differences with Europeans and other allies, a senior administration official said yesterday that the time is not yet ripe for a diplomatic solution. "The conditions that the G-8 [Group of Eight industrialized nations] talked about are not in place to get a real and permanent cease-fire that addresses the fundamental problems of the region," he said.

The official said Washington is privately advising Israel to consider the dire humanitarian situation and avoid civilian casualties. He said the Israelis "have a terrible problem" because Hezbollah is placing a lot of equipment in civilian neighborhoods. "They make mistakes, and there are accidents," he said. "It is impossible for them to avoid all the collateral damage."

U.S. support for Israel is also taking a toll on close coordination between the United States and France, which has been critical in fostering stability in the former French mandate country. That cooperation included a joint resolution that called for and achieved an end to Syria's 29-year occupation of Lebanon.

The two countries now appear seriously divided over the next step in resolving the crisis.

France proposed that the Security Council adopt a resolution that could call on Israel and Hezbollah to show "utmost restraint" and begin consideration of a reinforced U.N. peacekeeping presence in the region. The resolution would condemn unnamed "extremist forces" who are threatening Israeli and Lebanese democracies, and call for the release of Israeli troops by Hezbollah and the negotiation of "comprehensive and lasting cease-fire." It also proposes the disarmament of Hezbollah and support for Lebanon to exercise authority throughout the southern part of the country.

U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton challenged France's proposal. "I am not sure that conventional thinking about a cease-fire makes any sense when you are dealing with a terrorist group that fires rockets at civilian populations and kidnaps innocent Israelis," he said.

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