Israel decides not to widen Lebanon offensive

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Israeli government said Thursday that it would call up at least 15,000 reservists, as a senior official asserted that the lack of an international consensus on a cease-fire in Lebanon amounted to “permission from the world” for Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah.

But the Israeli government decided, at least for now, against widening the offensive in Lebanon, even though the decision on reservists suggested that the option was still on the table.

While Israeli warplanes hit targets throughout Lebanon, including an army base and a radio relay station, Hezbollah again fired dozens of rockets into the towns along Israel’s northern border; no one was reported seriously injured. And Israeli ground forces continued battling for control of a strategic Hezbollah stronghold about 21/2 miles inside Lebanon, where nine Israeli soldiers died a day earlier.

The large-scale Israeli troop call-up came the day after a meeting of high-level diplomats failed to bring about a demand for an immediate cease-fire, which Israel interpreted as a go-ahead to continue its offensive, Israeli officials said.

The meeting in Rome ended inconclusively, with the United States and Britain willing to give Israel more time to pursue Hezbollah while most European leaders urged an immediate cease-fire.

“We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world … to continue this operation, this war, until Hezbollah isn’t present in Lebanon, and until it is disarmed,” Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Israel’s Army Radio. “Everyone understands that a victory for Hezbollah is a victory for world terror.”

At the White House, President Bush was asked if he agreed with Ramon’s comments. “I believe this. I believe that … the Middle East is littered with agreements that just didn’t work. And now is the time to address the root cause of the problem. And the root cause of the problem is terrorist groups trying to stop the advance of democracies.”

Bush spoke on the same day al-Qaida’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, vowed that his network would attack Israel and U.S. targets to avenge the offensives against Lebanon and Gaza.

He also called for Sunni and Shiite Muslims to put aside their sectarian animosities and liberate “the whole of Palestine.” “We cannot watch these rockets raining down fire on our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon and remain inactive and submissive,” al-Zawahri said in a videotape aired Thursday on Al-Jazeera television.

The call for Muslims to unite came on the day that Hezbollah’s strongest backers, Syria and Iran, were holding meetings in Damascus, though it was unclear whether the talks in the Syrian capital were intended to rein in the militia or encourage it to intensify the fight against Israel. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also arrived in Damascus on Thursday, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah, quoting Syrian official sources.

The newspaper said Nasrallah arrived wearing plain clothes, rather than his normal clerical vestments, and was escorted toward an expected meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in a car belonging to the Syrian intelligence services.

Israeli commentators said in holding off on a large-scale ground offensive, Israel might be trying to avoid entangling Syria in the conflict. The Syrian government has clearly signaled it would regard such an offensive, particularly involving troop movements close to its own borders, as a threat.

In Israel, participants at a meeting Thursday of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security Cabinet said that the government authorized the call-up of three reserve divisions, which at full strength could consist of as many as 15,000 troops each.

But the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, later said about 15,000 reservists from the three divisions would be called up, indicating that not all were at full troop strength. He described the step as meant to “prepare us for all options.”

Although the call-up was already beginning, the Cabinet must approve any deployment of the mobilized reservists.

At times of crisis, Israel relies on its reserves to bolster the standing army, which is thought to number in the neighborhood of 100,000 regular troops. The reserves number about five times that; men are eligible for call-ups until around age 40.

Since the start of the offensive, the army has already mobilized up to 18,000 reservists, according to Israeli media reports; the army does not release the precise numbers being called up.

In other matters, Brig. Gen. Shuki Shihrur said the airstrike Wednesday that killed four U.N. observers at their outpost in El Khiyam came after an Israeli commander mistakenly approved the position as a target.

“It was a mistake when somebody in the chain of command didn’t identify the target” as a U.N. facility, he said. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan accused Israel of hitting the post deliberately, and on Thursday the U.N. Security Council issued a statement saying it was “deeply shocked” by the bombing.

An army spokesman said the incident was under investigation.


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