Peoria Journal Star

January 20, 2002

LaHood says crisis worsening -- Congressman wants full-time mediator assigned to Mideast

DORI MEINERT
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Returning from a nine-day trip to the Middle East, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood said Saturday he will urge President Bush to name a full-time mediator to help bring peace to that troubled region.

''I think it's the worst I've ever seen in 20 years,'' the Peoria Republican said of the region's political turmoil.

LaHood and four others, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., met with government leaders in Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Syria during the trip.

They chose not to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but met with Palestinian leaders they said are more likely to pursue peace.

The delegation met with Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday.

''Israel is in as intractable a position as I have ever seen them,'' LaHood said.

LaHood said he hopes the Bush administration will apply the ''Ireland model'' to the Middle East conflict, naming someone with political standing and political instincts to focus on bringing the two warring sides together. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine was widely praised in his role as mediator in peace talks in Northern Ireland.

The group met for three hours with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was ''very pessimistic'' about current prospects for peace.

''He felt he didn't have very much influence with Arafat right now,'' LaHood said.

LaHood said the government-funded trip helped members of Congress ''to get a snapshot of the region because we spend an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars there.''

LaHood, who is of Lebanese descent, made his sixth stop in that country during the trip.

In discussions with top leaders there, the congressional delegation reiterated U.S. demands that Lebanon turn over Hezbollah guerrillas accused of being involved in attacks against Americans in the 1980s.

LaHood said he is ''a little bit'' disappointed that Lebanon doesn't officially consider Hezbollah a terrorist group.

He said he's seen Lebanon take ''incremental steps'' over time, but the country has to continue ''disconnecting'' from Syria and Hezbollah.

The group also met with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, even though he has refused to fight what the United States has labeled terrorism in his country.

''He decried terrorism. He claims they don't have that in their country,'' said LaHood.