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US Ready to Assist Gaza Truce Arrangement

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued telephone diplomacy on the issue Thursday while a senior Israeli envoy was in Washington.

Rice spoke by telephone with top Israel leaders Thursday as she continued efforts for a Gaza truce on the second-last business day of the Bush administration's term in office.

The Secretary spent three days in New York last week working on the as yet unheeded cease-fire demand by the U.N. Security Council, and has since been engaged in efforts to support truce mediation between Israel and Hamas by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Rice had offered U.S. technical assistance in curbing the arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza through tunnels, an issue that remains a key obstacle to the diplomacy.

Israeli officials said Rice was ready to sign a memorandum of understanding and that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni could fly to Washington to conclude it.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack declined to discuss details of the U.S.-Israel contacts but said the United States is ready in principle to provide assistance.

"We have in the past done assessments, offered to assist. Those offers remain. And we'll see how the Mubarak initiative proceeds. Certainly we would be ready to offer assistance," he said.

McCormack said Rice spoke early Thursday with Livni and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and that the second-ranking official of the Israeli Foreign Ministry - Director-General Aaron Abramowitz - was in Washington to meet acting Assistant Secretary of State for near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

McCormack said the discussion with Barak included the shelling incident Thursday in which Israel forces hit a U.N. warehouse for humanitarian relief supplies in Gaza, and that the Israeli official reiterated what he had told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, that the attack had been a grave error.

The spokesman said Rice has repeatedly raised concerns with Israel about civilian losses in Gaza.

"From the very beginning, and that continues to the present day, we have urged Israel to take very possible step to avoid the loss of any innocent life in combat operation, or any effect on innocent people just trying to live their daily lives," he said.

As the main political and military supporter of Israel, the United States has come under criticism from aid groups and others in connection with civilian casualties in Gaza.

Defending the Bush administration, McCormack said the daily cease-fires Israel has agreed to for relief efforts - the so-called humanitarian corridor - would not have occurred without Rice's personal intervention with Prime Minister Olmert.