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DIPLOMACY

Arabs urge Syrians to help; battles tough for Israel in south

SIDON, Lebanon -- Mideast diplomats were pressing Syria to stop backing Hezbollah as guerrillas fired more deadly rockets at Israel's third-largest city yesterday. Israel faced tougher-than-expected ground battles and bombarded targets in southern Lebanon, hitting a convoy of refugees.

Israel's defense minister said his country would accept an international force, preferably NATO, on its border after it drives back or weakens Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But his troops reported encountering an intelligent, well-prepared, and ruthless guerrilla army whose fighters don't seem to fear death.

With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arriving in Israel today, both the Arabs and Israelis appeared to be trying to set out positions ahead of Washington's first diplomatic mission to the region since the fighting began. Rice said yesterday that Washington's poor relationship with Syria is overstated and she indicated an openness to working with Damascus to resolve the crisis.

The United States backs Israel's refusal to talk about a cease-fire until it completes the military campaign against Hezbollah, but it is under increasing pressure to foster a plan to end the growing suffering and destruction in Lebanon.

In Washington, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia and four other Saudi officials met with President Bush and Rice at the White House for more than an hour yesterday, requesting that the United States intervene.

Still, daily casualty figures appeared to be lowering -- about nine confirmed yesterday by Lebanese security officials, compared with dozens each day last week. The decrease could be a result of the exodus from the hardest-hit areas or because of the difficulty for authorities in getting figures from the war zone.

In the 12th day of fighting, guerrillas launched a new barrage of more than a dozen rockets against the Israeli city of Haifa, killing two people and setting an apartment building on fire. Israeli missiles struck a convoy of fleeing Lebanese, killing four , including a journalist.

In the far south, fighting with Hezbollah raged around the Israeli military's foothold in Lebanon -- the border village of Maroun al-Ras, where the Israeli Army has maintained a significant presence since Saturday.

With Israel and the United States saying a real cease-fire is not possible until Hezbollah is reined in, Arab heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia were pushing Syria to end its support of the guerrillas, Arab diplomats in Cairo said.

A loss of Syria's support would deeply weaken Hezbollah, though its other ally, Iran, gives it a large part of its money and weapons.

The two moderate Arab governments were prepared to spend heavily from Egypt's political capital in the region and Saudi Arabia's vast financial reserves to break Damascus from the guerrillas and Iran, the diplomats said.

Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, said that once the offensive had gotten Hezbollah away from the border, his country would be willing to see an international force move in to help the Lebanese army deploy across the south, where the guerrillas have held sway for years.

``Israel's goal is to see the Lebanese army deployed along the border with Israel, but we understand that we are talking about a weak army and that in the midterm period Israel will have to accept a multinational force," Peretz told the Cabinet, suggesting NATO be in charge of the force.

Bush's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said yesterday that the administration would be open to an international peacekeeping force but does not expect US forces to participate in one.

Israeli troops returning from the front described Hezbollah guerrillas hiding among civilians and in bunkers three stories deep -- evidence, they say, that Hezbollah has been planning this battle for many years. ``It's hard to beat them," one soldier said. ``They're not afraid of anything."

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