WASHINGTON -- President Bush asserted yesterday that Hezbollah was defeated in its month-long conflict with Israel, casting the fighting that killed hundreds of Lebanese and Israeli civilians as part of a wider struggle ``between freedom and terrorism."
As a UN-imposed truce seemed to be holding yesterday, Bush made clear that he blames Hezbollah and its patrons, Iran and Syria, for igniting the conflict. ``We recognize that the responsibility for this lies with Hezbollah," Bush said. ``Responsibility lies also with Hezbollah's state sponsors, Iran and Syria."
Bush warned Tehran to stop backing militias in Lebanon and in Iraq, where US officials have long accused Iran of feeding the sectarian violence that is threatening to erupt into a full-scale civil war.
``In both these countries, Iran is backing armed groups in the hope of stopping democracy from taking hold," Bush said. ``The message of this administration is clear. America will stay on the offensive against Al Qaeda. Iran must stop its support for terror, and the leaders of these armed groups must make a choice. If they want to participate in the political life of their countries, they must disarm."
Bush's comments came at the close of an Israeli military campaign aimed at ending Hezbollah attacks and crippling the radical Shi'ite militia. The campaign did not go as well as the United States and Israel had expected. Despite a devastating air assault and an intense ground campaign, Israel's military was unable to gain full control of the border area in southern Lebanon against elusive and well-fortified Hezbollah fighters. Some observers believe the conflict burnished the popularity of Hezbollah in Lebanon, even as it resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and massive destruction of infrastructure across Lebanon.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Bush brushed aside suggestions that the United States was slow to respond to the crisis in Lebanon or that the fighting had resulted in anything less than a clear defeat for Hezbollah. Bush said the resolution ratified Friday in the United Nations addressed what he called the root causes of the conflict: the ability of Hezbollah, a radical Shi'ite militia, to control southern Lebanon and the shipment of arms to the group from Iran through Syria.
In his remarks, Bush accused both Syria and Iran of undermining US-backed efforts to build democracy in the Middle East, something Bush called essential to the broader fight against terrorism there and elsewhere.
``Forces of terror see the changes that are taking place in their midst. They understand that the advance of liberty, the freedom to worship, the freedom to dissent, and the protection of human rights would be a defeat for their hateful ideology," Bush said. ``But they also know that young democracies are fragile and that this may be their last and best opportunity to stop freedom's advance and steer newly free nations to the path of radical extremism."
The UN resolution envisions Lebanese troops supplemented by an international military force to be deployed controlling the area of southern Lebanon from which Hezbollah had launched rocket attacks against northern Israel. Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon will leave as the international troops are deployed. The resolution also envisions the end of arms shipments to Hezbollah.
``Hezbollah attacked Israel, Hezbollah started the crisis, and Hezbollah suffered a defeat in this crisis," the president said. ``The reason why is, this is because there's going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon, and that's going to be a Lebanese force with a robust international force to help them seize control of the country."
Bush called the UN cease-fire resolution ``an important step forward that will help bring an end to the violence."
``We certainly hope the cease-fire holds," he said. ``Lebanon can't be a strong democracy when there is a state within a state, and that's Hezbollah."
Back in Washington after a 10-day stay at his Texas ranch, Bush traveled to the Pentagon yesterday morning to meet with senior advisers, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and others. He had lunch with a group of Iraq specialists, some of whom have been critical of him in the past. Later, he received another briefing at the State Department before making his remarks.
While at the State Department, Bush received three briefings from top officials including undersecretaries Karen Hughes and Robert Joseph. The first covered terrorism and counterproliferation ; the second briefing concerned Rice's overhaul of foreign assistance and diplomatic assignments; and the third focused on the situation in the Middle East, spokesman Sean McCormack said.