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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday she will return to the Middle East to work with others on trying to bring an end to the Israeli-Hizbullah fighting.
She did not say when she would return to the troubled region, but that she would first be conferring with top aides.
"I do think it is important that groundwork be laid so I can make the most of whatever time I can spend there," Rice told a news conference here, where she has been attending a conference on Asian issues.
Rice didn't provide a precise time for her return to the Middle East where diplomats are working to reach a cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah.
Rice had been expected to return to the region this weekend.
"I am going to return to the Middle East," said Rice, but at the right time. The United States, adopting a diplomatic stance that has not been embraced by allies, has been insisting that any cease-fire to the violence over the last three weeks must come with conditions.
Otherwise, Rice and other US officials have said repeatedly, they fear just a repetition of the on-again, off-again violence of recent years.
Rice said she will assess when to return to the Middle East. "Let me be very clear. I'm going to return to the Middle East. The question is, when is it right for me to return to the Middle East?"
Nearly every US ally has called for a quick truce to end the bloodshed and efforts to smooth needed humanitarian supplies to the Lebanese. Rice agrees, but earlier had reiterated her position that the Israelis and the Lebanese must do the time-consuming work of achieving a sustainable peace plan.
As she did so, US President George W. Bush's spokesman Tony Snow said the administration would "push back" against criticism of the United States.
Rice has spent three days dashing to high-stakes meetings in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Rome, and then traveled to Malaysia on Thursday for the long-planned conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
At her news conference Friday, Rice said that before returning to the Mideast, she wanted to confer with aides Elliot Abrams and David Welch, both US envoys for the region, to work on a second trek there. She said because of the time zone disparity, she had not yet done that.
Rice's spokesman, Adam Ereli, took strong issue with an assertion by Israel's Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who said the failure of world leaders to call for an immediate cease-fire at a summit in Rome gave Israel a green light to carry on with its campaign to crush Hizbullah.
"Any such statement is outrageous," Ereli said. "The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict."
At the news conference, Rice said, "I recognize the tremendous concern that the Malaysian government and other governments here have about the unfolding situation in the Middle East."
"We all are concerned about the humanitarian situation there and want to see as early an end to the conflict as possible," she added, lamenting that "people of whole generations have grown up without the prospect of peace. ... We will try to do the same to bring about a broader and more comprehensive peace."
Asked what she hoped to accomplish when she does return to the region, Rice said, "We hope to achieve an early end to this violence, that's what we hope to achieve."
"That means that we have to help the parties establish conditions that will make it possible for an early cease-fire that, nonetheless, does not return us to the status quo. ... I think everybody in Rome agreed that we can't return to the circumstances that led us to this in the first place."
She said the terms and conditions of such a cease-fire would involve "a multinational force under UN supervision" that would have a mandate to enforce a peace agreement.
"So, many of the elements are there" for such an arrangement, Rice added, saying that "I think the question is getting them arranged. There is no doubt in my mind that we want to achieve this and achieve it as soon as possible. We hope that all states will be supportive of a solution based on the G-8 (summit) statement and based on Rome."
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