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Bush Says Rice Headed Back to Middle East


President Bush says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is returning to the Middle East with plans for a United Nations force to separate Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants fighting in southern Lebanon. Mr. Bush discussed the conflict Friday in Washington with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

President Bush says Secretary Rice is returning to the region in hopes of seizing what he calls an opportunity for lasting peace and stability for Israel and Lebanon.

At a joint news conference following their talks, Prime Minister Blair expressed his support for Mr. Bush's announcement, saying Rice's trip will help lay the groundwork for a meeting Monday at the United Nations to discuss a possible U.N. stabilization force for southern Lebanon.

"She will have with her the package of proposals, in order to get agreement, both from the government of Israel and the government of Lebanon on what is necessary to happen, in order for this crisis to stop," said Mr. Blair.

Both leaders are under increasing pressure from Arab and some European allies to back calls for an immediate ceasefire between Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants.

President Bush says the Middle East is littered with agreements that just did not work. For the sake of long-term stability, he says, it is time to deal with the underlying causes of the violence.

"Listen, the temptation is to say, 'It's too tough. Let's just try to solve it quickly with something that won't last. Let's just get it off the TV screens.' But that won't solve the problem and it is certainly not going to help the Lebanese citizens," said Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush says Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors are using violence to stop the spread of peace and democracy in the region. That, the president says, is not going to succeed.

"Our goal is to achieve a lasting peace, which requires that a free, democratic, and independent Lebanese government be empowered to exercise full authority of its own territory. We want a Lebanon free of militias and foreign interference," added Mr. Bush.

Prime Minister Blair says one of the goals of a U.N. force would be to help Lebanon's army take charge of southern areas that have remained under the control of Hezbollah. The militant group used those areas to launch cross-border raids, which sparked this latest round of violence, and to fire rockets into Israel.

Prime Minister Blair says the stakes in this fight are higher than just the future of Lebanese democracy. He says it is a fight against a terrorist strategy to provoke a reaction from Israel, and then mobilize extreme elements to create a situation that draws even moderates to their cause.

"We really will never understand how we deal with this situation, unless we understand that there is a big picture out in the Middle East, which is about reactionary and terrorist groups trying to stop what the vast majority of people in the Middle East want, which is progress toward democracy, liberty, human rights, the same as the rest of us," added Mr. Blair.

Prime Minister Blair warned Iran and Syria that they risk increasing confrontation, if they do not stop backing Hezbollah. It is a choice that he says Damascus and Tehran cannot avoid

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