Diplomatic drive finally under way as Rice flies in

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Condoleezza Rice flew to Israel last night speaking of the need for an " urgent ceasefire" with Hizbollah after visiting Beirut to see the devastation from Israeli bombing raids that have left hundreds of Lebanese civilians dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

President George Bush had rejected an appeal from the Saudi leadership for an immediate ceasefire, saying it would be unenforceable. But Ms Rice, the US Secretary of State, softened her tone as she prepared for an international conference in Rome tomorrow with proposals for a solution.

"It is very important to establish conditions under which a ceasefire can take place. We believe that a ceasefire is urgent. It is important to have conditions that will make it also sustainable," Ms Rice said.

Last night, she went straight into talks with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, in Jerusalem and she is to meet Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, separately today.

In Beirut, Ms Rice told Nabih Berri, the Parliament's Speaker who is an ally of Hizbollah and close to Syria, that a ceasefire deal must include Hizbollah's withdrawal beyond the Litani river, 13 miles north of Israel, and the deployment of an international force in the border region, a Lebanese political source said.

Israeli officials and analysts said they expected Israel's offensive, which has already lasted for 13 days, to continue for at least another week. A high-ranking Israeli said the immediate ceasefire demanded by the UN was impossible. Ms Rice "is speaking the language of diplomacy. She is softening her language because there will be important officials in Rome, including Arab officials," he said.

Tony Blair continued to refuse to condemn the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, prompting a public split with the Prime Minister of Iraq, who was in London yesterday. Mr Blair said after talks with Nouri al-Maliki the action in Lebanon was a "catastrophe", but the Iraqi leader said it was "beyond a catastrophe ­ it violates everything that the international community can be based on". The disagreement with Mr Maliki underlined the damage being done to Mr Blair's standing in the Middle East.

The Rome meeting is expected to discuss proposals for an international force that could underpin a ceasefire. Israel, which previously rejected such a call from Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, and Mr Blair, now agreed a force "with teeth" should replace the impotent 2,000-strong UN force in southern Lebanon.

Amir Peretz, the Israeli defence minister, surprised many on Sunday by suggesting that Nato could provide a force, while Mr Olmert spoke of European and Arab states as troop contributors. British, German and French foreign ministry officials held talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Sunday, but it seems no country is offering troops. An Israeli official said: "It looks like the French will take the lead," because of France's historic ties to Lebanon.

Agreement on an international force, which would enforce a "sterile zone " deprived of Hizbollah fighters in southern Lebanon along the Israeli border, is likely to take some time. So that leaves the door open to Israel to continue its offensive.

There is a danger that the Lebanese governmentcould collapse, dealing a blow to Israel's stated goal of allowing the Lebanese authorities to extend their sovereignty down to the country's southern border.

"What we're seeing here, in a sense, is ... the birth pangs of a new Middle East and, whatever we do, we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one," Ms Rice said.

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