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Rice, in Malaysia, Considers Return to Middle East

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to decide Friday whether to pay a return trip to the Middle East to try to help broker a durable cease-fire in the Lebanon conflict. The Secretary has been consulting with ASEAN leaders in Kuala Lumpur after an initial crisis visit to the region earlier this week.

Secretary Rice sent two top U.S. envoys - Assistant Secretary David Welch and White House Middle East policy chief Elliott Abrams - to the region after attending the emergency conference on the Lebanon fighting in Rome Wednesday.

Officials here say she will make a decision in Malaysia Friday, based on consultations with them, on whether a return trip to the Middle East might help achieve an end to the fighting.

Although the Rome meeting was labeled a failure because it did not yield a cease-fire plan, U.S. officials say it did make progress toward a truce accord and on a possible new international force to help keep the peace between Israel and Hezbollah.

Rice said in Malaysia Thursday she had not yet made a decision about further travel, but she has shelved plans for what was to have been a more extensive Asia visit to clear the way for more face-to-face Middle East diplomacy.

She began her initial trip Monday with a stop in Beirut and then went to Jerusalem to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders before heading to Rome. At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said she will go back if she thinks she can have a positive impact on the situation:

"She's going to go if she feels she has a positive contribution to make to achieving a lasting and enduring end to the violence," he said. "I think we've made some very good progress and had some real success coming out of Rome. We now have these other senior officials working in the region on follow-up to that, and I think she'll make her evaluation in part based on what she hears from them as to how and whether she at this particular moment would be able to help move that process forward through her presence."

While envoys Welch and Abrams held talks with leaders in the region, State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow met with European Union and NATO officials in Brussels Thursday on the possible make-up and role of a new peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon.

There was broad agreement at the Rome meeting on the need for such a force, but there was no apparent progress on determining what countries might participate.

The United States came under criticism in Rome for refusing to endorse an immediate cease-fire, but Rice told reporters no cease-fire could be arranged until conditions were right to guarantee that it would hold.

President Bush reiterated that stand in White House comments Thursday, saying he was troubled by the destruction Israeli attacks have caused in Lebanon, but that he rejected any fake peace that does not tackle the conflict's root causes.

The United States wants to see a solution that includes the full implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 15-59 of September 2004, which among other things calls for the disarming of remaining Lebanese militias including Hezbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese army to the border with Israel.

In the absence of Lebanese forces, Hezbollah has been in control of the border region since Israel dismantled its self-proclaimed Lebanese security zone and withdrew to the international boundary in 2000.