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(photo credit: AP)
In a surprise visit to Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the beleaguered prime minister of Lebanon on Monday for his courage in struggling to contain the fighting between Hizbullah and Israel.
Rice met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks. Rice told him, "Thank you for your courage and steadfastness."
Saniora told Rice he was glad to have her in Lebanon, adding that his government is looking to "put an end to the war that is being inflicted on Lebanon." The two shook hands across a conference table on which there were two flags, one Lebanese and one American. Half a dozen other diplomats sat around the table.
Saniora and other Lebanese officials are expected to push Rice to call for an immediate cease-fire, something the Bush administration has resisted.
Rice has tried to walk delicately between supporting the democratic government of Lebanon while not dictating to Israel how it should handle its own security.
"We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal," Rice told reporters traveling with her to the region Monday.
Rice said any cease-fire agreement would have to be signed by Lebanon, not Hizbullah.
"The last time that I looked, Hizbullah had even run for office as a part of the government of Lebanon," she said, referring to Hizbullah's presence in the Parliament.
"If there is a cessation of hostilities, the government of Lebanon is going to have to be the party," she said. "Let's treat the government of Lebanon as the sovereign government that it is."
But she added that if the violence between Israel and Hizbullah fighters in Lebanon ends only to restart within weeks, "then all of the carnage that Hizbullah launched by its illegal activities, abducting the soldiers and then launching rocket attacks, we will have gotten nothing from that."
Rice also indicated openness to working with Syria to resolve the crisis, noting that the United States still has a diplomatic mission and State Department officials working in the Syrian capital.
"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians. It's that the Syrians haven't acted," she said.
"It's not as if we don't have diplomatic relations," she said. "We do."
The US ambassador to Syria was recalled last year after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Syrian officials have been blamed for the murder, which Damascus denies.
Rice's words to reporters on a flight from Washington to a refueling stop in Ireland came as she embarked on a difficult trip to the Middle East, where she will meet with key players trying to stop the violence along the tense Lebanese-Israeli border.
Rice is facing increasing international pressure to call for an immediate cease-fire. Yet she and US President George W. Bush have resisted, saying any peace agreement must come with the right conditions to ensure that it is sustainable. They particularly want to see an agreement that would help Lebanon control its entire territory, including the southern third that is dominated by Hizbullah.
Rice plans stops in Israel and then Rome, where she will join a high-level conference of key players of the Middle East and the international community to focus on the political underpinnings of a potential cease-fire. She's also focused on humanitarian aid for war-torn Lebanon.
Rice said the Saudis are urging the international community to use the so-called Taif Agreement and a similar 2004 UN resolution as the foundation for peace. Taif calls for the government of Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah within six months and underscores that Syria should not be allowed "to constitute a source of threat to the security of Lebanon under any circumstances."
"We and the Saudis have the same goal," Rice said. "The Saudis talked a great deal about the importance of Taif and getting a solution that indeed does lead to the fulfillment of the obligations" under that 19-year-old agreement.