BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hezbollah dealt Israel its heaviest losses in the Lebanon campaign Wednesday, killing nine soldiers in fierce firefights. With key Mideast players failing to agree on a formula for a cease-fire, an Israeli general said the operation could last weeks.
Israel said it intends to damage Hezbollah and establish a "security zone" that would be free of the guerrillas and extend 1.2 miles into Lebanon from the Israeli border. Such a zone would prevent Hezbollah from carrying out cross-border raids such as the one two weeks ago which triggered the Israeli military response.
Israel said it would maintain such a zone, with firepower or other means, until the arrival of an international force with muscle to be deployed in a wider swath of southern Lebanon -- as opposed to the U.N. force already there that has failed to prevent the violence.
In Rome, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said participants at a daylong conference on the Mideast crisis agreed Wednesday on the need for a strong international force under a U.N. mandate. Italy, Turkey and Spain all said they might send troops.
Rice said more work was needed to define the force and its mission. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and diplomats from European and moderate Arab countries also attended the meeting; Israel, Iran and Syria did not.
The Israeli bombardment has failed to stop guerrilla rocket fire, even while killing hundreds, driving up to 750,000 people from their homes and causing billion of dollars in damage. Hezbollah fired another large barrage into northern Israel on Wednesday -- 151 rockets that wounded at least 31 people and damaged property from the suburbs of the port on Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea to the Hula Valley above the Sea of Galilee. Over the past two weeks, the guerrillas have fired 1,436 rockets into Israel.
Pushing Hezbollah back with ground troops was proving to be bloody. Several thousand troops are in Lebanon, Israeli military officials said -- mainly in a roughly 6-square-mile pocket around the town of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold just over two miles from the border.
The Hezbollah fighters are heavily outnumbered, with some 100 in Bint Jbail and several hundred more in surrounding fields, bunkers and cave, according to the officials. But they use classic guerrilla tactics, choosing when to strike in the hilly territory they know well. They are dug in with extensive tunnel networks and stockpiling weapons, including rockets with which they pelted Israeli forces Wednesday.
Violence was also increasing on the other front of Israel's fight on Islamic militants: Gaza, where Hamas-linked militants are holding an Israeli soldier seized a month ago. A force of 50 tanks and bulldozers entered the northern Gaza Strip to battle Hamas gunmen. Israeli air and artillery attacks killed 23 Palestinians, including at least 16 militants and three young girls.
Israel was feeling pressure on the international front -- and anger over a bombing Tuesday night that directly hit a U.N. observation post on the border, killing four U.N. observers.
At the Rome talks, Rice resisted pressure from allies for Washington to change its stance and call for an immediate halt to the violence.
Rice insisted any cease-fire must be "sustainable" and that there could be "no return to the status quo" -- a reference to the U.S. and Israeli position that Hezbollah must first be pushed back from the border and the Lebanese army backed by international forces deployed in the south.
The chief of Israel's northern command warned that the fight would drag on.
"I assume it will continue for several more weeks, and in a number of weeks we will be able to (declare) a victory," Maj. Gen. Udi Adam told a news conference.
While the ground battle was intensifying, the bombardment in rest of Lebanon appeared to be easing. Israeli jets were heard repeatedly over Beirut in the evening, but the capital saw no strikes.
But early Thursday, local broadcasters said Israel hit an army base and an adjacent relay station belonging to Lebanese state radio at Aamchit, 30 miles north of Beirut, knocking down a transmission tower. It wasn't immediately clear if the attack was by air or shelling from ships. The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the reports.
About 24 airstrikes were reported outside the immediate border region Wednesday, down from nearly 30 a day recently. One strike in the center of the southern port of Tyre collapsed the top floor and ripped the facade off an empty seven-story building where Hezbollah's top commander in the south has offices. The strike wounded 13 people, including six children, nearby.
Warplanes continued to target trucks at a time when aid groups are worried about moving aid to the south by truck. Three trucks carrying vegetables were hit in the Bekaa Valley and another on a road between Syria and Beirut.
The eight deaths in Bint Jbail, which Israel has been trying to take for four days, were the heaviest Israeli casualties in a single battle during the Lebanon campaign.
Israeli troops had thought they secured the area around the town, but the guerrillas ambushed a patrol before dawn, said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman. A rescue force went in, and fighting escalated. Hezbollah said its guerrillas ambushed an Israeli unit from three sides as it tried to advance from a ridge on the outskirts of the town.
Eight soldiers were killed and 22 wounded in the fighting, the army said. It later reported a ninth soldier killed and several other casualties in the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras.
At least 30 guerrillas were killed Wednesday, an Israeli military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. Hezbollah announced no casualties; it has acknowledged 19 dead in four days of fighting around Bint Jbail.
The area features dense growth of underbrush and trees, with hills and narrow, winding roads -- ideal for guerrilla emplacements and ambushes. Israeli media reported that some of the casualties resulted from direct hits by anti-tank rockets and others from roadside bombs.
So far, Israeli troops have gone house to house taking positions on the outskirts of the town, without going far inside Bint Jbail, the Israeli official said.
Bint Jbail has great symbolic importance for the Hezbollah guerrillas, who are Shiite Muslims. It has the largest Shiite community in the border area and was known as the "capital of the resistance" during Israel's 1982-1990 occupation because of its vehement support for Hezbollah.
An Israeli seizure of the town would rob Hezbollah of a significant refuge overlooking northern Israel and force its fighters to operate from smaller, more vulnerable villages in the south.
Wednesday's deaths brought to 51 the number of Israelis killed in the campaign, including 32 members of the military, according to the military.
In Lebanon, at least 423 people have been killed -- including 376 civilians reported by the Health Ministry and security officials, 20 Lebanese soldiers and 27 fighters Hezbollah has acknowledged were killed. Israel says more than 100 guerrillas have been killed.
About 100 foreigners who had been visiting family homes in Yaroun -- a few miles from Bint Jbail -- fled to Tyre and said their village had been ravaged by bombardment. Most of the foreigners were Americans of Lebanese descent.
"It was worse than a nightmare. I saw dogs and cats on bodies that couldn't be taken from bombed-out houses. We ran from one building to another trying to escape the bombing," said Ali Abbas Tehfi of Los Angeles.
"It didn't stop. It didn't stop even for a day. Everything is finished," he said. He said an unknown number of Americans were still trapped in Yaroun.
AP correspondents Kathy Gannon in Tyre, Hamza Hendawi in Sidon, Sheherezade Faramarzi in Beirut and Katherine Shrader and Victor L. Simpson in Rome contributed to this story.