Bush Putin 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON - The US is blaming Hizbullah for escalating Middle East violence and rejecting calls from international leaders to restrain Israel's reaction.
The violence between Israel and Lebanon topped the agenda of US and world leaders gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the G8 summit. President George W. Bush, speaking after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, stressed Hizbullah's responsibility for the situation, saying, "The best way to stop the violence is for Hizbullah to lay down its arms and to stop attacking. And therefore I call upon Syria to exert influence over Hizbullah."
Bush's reaction to the Israeli retaliatory attacks in Lebanon put him at odds with Putin, as well as with French President Jacques Chirac and the European Union. Putin, standing next to Bush at a joint press conference, said, referring to Israel's actions, "The use of force should be balanced."
This difference of opinion is expected to be ironed out when the members of the G8 try to draft a joint statement on the situation in the Middle East. US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who is accompanying Bush to the summit, said the joint statement would put "maximum pressure on Hizbollah to stop its rocket attacks and ultimately return the prisoners it has taken."
US sources expressed belief that the differences regarding Israeli actions would not overshadow the overwhelming agreement on the responsibility of Hizbullah for the outbreak of violence.
Bush phoned Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora on Friday, while in flight from Germany to Russia, and heard a plea for the US to pressure Israel for a cease-fire. Bush, according to spokesman Tony Snow, turned down the Lebanese request. "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel," Snow said.
Following the conversation, Siniora's office in Beirut issued a statement saying Bush had agreed to "put pressure on Israel to limit the damage to Lebanon."
The president's spokesman quickly denied the statement, saying that the only thing Bush had said was that the US position was that Israel should limit the impact its actions have on civilians.
Bush also spoke Friday to Jordan's King Abdullah and to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, urging them to call on Syria to use its influence to control Hizbollah.
While the talks with regional Arab leaders were conducted by Bush himself, the discussions with Israeli leaders remained on a lower level and were left to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spoke with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by phone on Friday.
Reactions within the US political system were largely supportive of Israel's actions in Lebanon. Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, appearing with Israeli Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, said in Washington that Israel's actions were "a justified response" to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.
Former Virginia governor Mark Warner, a possible Democratic Party candidate for the presidency in 2008, said he "stands with Israel" in calling for the immediate release of the soldiers.
The only leading politician to break ranks with the pro-Israel voices was Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. In a statement issued Friday, he called on the administration to "think through very carefully how Israel's extraordinary reaction could affect our operations in Iraq and our joint diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue."
In St. Petersburg, a Russian official played down differences between the United States and the other G8 countries over how to handle the crisis.
While Bush rejected an appeal from Lebanon for a cease-fire and urged Israel to limit civilian casualties, other summit leaders condemned what they saw as an Israeli overreaction that has caused dozens of civilian deaths and risked a major escalation of bloodshed in the Middle East.
Dmitry Peskov, a senior Kremlin spokesman, said there was not much of a divide between the United States and Russia on how to deal with the crisis.
"Disagreements are not so great when it comes to strategy... because both Russia and the United States call for an end to these bombardments and an end to these terrorist attacks, whichever side of the conflict they are coming from," Peskov told reporters Saturday.
Sergei Prikhodko, Putin's foreign policy adviser, said Russia felt the need to try to reach agreement on a joint declaration on the Middle East, calling the situation "very dangerous and worrying."
Italian Premier Romano Prodi said in Rome Friday that the "spiral of violence" was an indication that the situation had "regressed 20 years."
Chirac was even harsher in his comments about Israel, saying, "One could ask if today there is not sort of a will to destroy Lebanon, its equipment, its roads, its communications."
Putin said that hostage taking was never acceptable but "neither is the use of full-scale force in response to these, even if unlawful, actions... We will demand that all sides involved in the conflict immediately stop the bloodshed."
AP contributed to this report.