tony blair 298 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
British Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls Wednesday for Israel to declare a unilateral cease-fire in the burgeoning Mideast conflict, insisting that Hizbullah must first free Israeli soldiers and stop firing rockets at the Jewish state.
Blair told lawmakers at his weekly House of Commons question session that Hizbullah must make the first move to halt hostilities that erupted a week ago when a militants nabbed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.
"This would stop now if the soldiers who were kidnapped wrongly ... were released," he said. "It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa, deliberately to kill innocent civilians."
"If those two things happened, let me promise ... I would be the first out there saying 'Israel should halt this operation,"' Blair said.
Lawmakers condemned Blair for siding with Israel, which has bombed Beirut's airport, bridges and other infrastructure targets in retaliation for the kidnapping and for rocket attacks that followed. Some 300 people have died, scores have been injured and as many as 500,000 have been displaced.
"How can we be evenhanded if we're not willing to condemn Israel's disproportionate response?" Liberal Democrat Party Leader Menzies Campbell said.
Blair said it was important that Israel's military action be proportionate and that it do its best to minimize civilian casualties, but he clearly placed blame for the conflict on Hizbullah.
He said it was impossible to return to negotiations on the so-called roadmap for peace between Israel and the Palestinians when Israel cannot be confident of its security.
On Tuesday night, US President George Bush said, "We have made it very clear that Israel should be allowed to defend herself."
Bush said he suspects Syria was trying to reassert influence in Lebanon more than a year after Damascus ended what had effectively been a long-term military occupation of its smaller, weaker neighbor.
"Everybody abhors the loss of innocent life," Bush said. "On the other hand, what we recognize is that the root cause of the problem is Hizbullah. And that problem must be addressed ... by making it clear to Syria that they've got to stop their support to Hizbullah."
Bush said there were suspicions that instability caused by Hizbullah's attacks will cause some in Lebanon to invite Syria to return to the nation.
"Listen, Syria is trying to get back into Lebanon, it looks like to me," said Bush, who also noted the backing Hizbullah receives from Iran.
"In order to be able to deal with this crisis, the world must deal with Hizbullah, with Syria and to continue to work to isolate Iran," Bush said.