The United States said Wednesday there is a convergence of views with key allies over how to stop the fighting in Lebanon despite another postponement of a key U.N. Security Council meeting. The State Department says it expects action by the world body within days.
The Security Council postponed for the second time this week a meeting of governments offering troops for a proposed international force to be deployed in southern Lebanon.
But officials here say the delay of the meeting, which was to have been Thursday, does not mean a deadlock in Lebanon diplomacy and that action by the United Nations is days and not weeks away.
News reports said France, the potential leader of the new force, had rejected the meeting because of differences with the United States over a French demand that a political deal to end the Lebanon fighting should precede deployment of peacekeepers.
However, briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States supported the postponement, and that differences were being narrowed down to the point where Security Council conferees are working off a common draft:
"We actually are at the point now with the French government, where we are working off one paper, a common text," he explained. "That is not to say there aren't still issues to work through, that there aren't intensive diplomatic discussions that need to be had, not only with the French, but others as well. But we are coming to a convergence of views, a convergence of approach. We agree on all the major elements."
France, backed by other European Union member countries, has been pressing for an immediate end to hostilities in Lebanon, to be followed by a permanent cease-fire accord and a political deal that would include disarming Hezbollah.
The United States has said that all the elements are intertwined and that a cease-fire cannot occur until a political framework is reached between Israel and Lebanon.
Spokesman McCormack declined to provide details of remaining issues under negotiation but said they centered mainly on the timing and sequence of the various elements.
A senior official who spoke to reporters here said one compromise possibility was the deployment of a so-called "rapid reaction force" to southern Lebanon as soon as a truce between Israel and Hezbollah was reached.
Such a force, which might be technically part of the current U.N. peace mission in southern Lebanon, would separate the warring parties until a full-scale peacekeeping force could be put in place, a process that could take months.
In related development, the State Department sharply criticized the United Nations' second-ranking official for remarks this week that the United States was impeding formation of a Lebanon force, and should allow other countries to share the lead in crisis diplomacy.
Spokesman McCormack said U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown's comments were inappropriate from an international civil servant.
"Some of his comments as reported today are really misguided and misplaced," he added. "And we are seeing a troubling pattern of a high official of the U.N. who seems to be making it his business to criticize member-states, and frankly with misplaced and misguided criticism."
A United Nations spokesman defended Malloch Brown, saying the deputy U.N. chief has a responsibility and duty to speak out on issues of grave concern to member states.
In June, Malloch Brown drew a U.S. rebuke after he accused the Bush administration of failing to stand up to domestic critics of the United Nations.
Spokesman McCormack said the administration wants to continue a good working relationship with the British U.N. official, but suggested he focus his efforts where they are needed, on reforming the U.N. bureaucracy.