AP Diplomatic WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration assailed Israel on Friday for attacks that have left scores of Palestinians dead.
Demanding an immediate halt, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "above all, civilians should not be targeted."
Boucher cited reports of an Israeli vigilante group carrying out an attack on the West Bank and reported attacks on ambulances.
"We strongly oppose the Israeli policy of targeted killing that has led to the death of many innocent civilians," the spokesman said.
His remarks at the State Department's daily media briefing extended a the tougher line the Bush administration has taken recently on Israel's tactics in retaliating to Palestinian terror attack.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly rebuked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, saying "if you declare war against the Palestinians and think you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed -- I don't know if that leads you anywhere."
In a fresh burst of U.S. diplomacy, President Bush is sending mediator Anthony Zinni to the Middle East next week to try to work out a truce between warring Israelis and Palestinians.
Announcing the sudden decision Thursday at the White House, Bush said "the United States will do all it can to help the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority restore hope to their people and to the region."
Zinni, on his third mediation mission, intends to guide Israel and the Palestinians toward a "road map to peace," Bush said.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at Bush's side during the announcement, will fly to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf on Sunday. His trip was billed initially as one of coalition-building in the U.S. campaign against terrorism.
But Cheney said Thursday he would discuss with government leaders, including those in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, peacemaking recommendations by an international commission headed by former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell and a peace overture by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Powell, also at Bush's side, said Zinni will focus on security "so we can get the violence under control, down to zero," and move to a political settlement.
Bush made the decision based on signals from Israel and the Palestinians suggesting that after unrelenting bloodshed they were ready to consider a truce, two senior U.S. officials told The Associated Press.
Bush and his senior advisers did not predict an outcome. But the president politely suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon look beyond security to "a vision for peace." Bush said he hoped "my friend, Prime Minister Sharon, agrees with that assessment."
The Bush administration had been under pressure to take a more active role in the Middle East morass. But he held back, insisting first on a period of calm.
But now, a senior administration official said, on condition of anonymity, "the bottom line is that all those involved concluded that the risks of sending Tony Zinni back were less than the risks of standing aloof."
"All the leaders sent us a signal that this was the right time," the second U.S. official said, also on condition of anonymity.
Israel welcomed Bush's announcement. "We will do our best to facilitate a successful visit by Zinni to the region. Everything depends on (Yasser) Arafat," Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Zinni's trip "is a useful move." The situation is deteriorating and some "serious intervention" is necessary, he said.
Zinni's mission, expected to begin late next week, may take him to Egypt and Jordan in addition to his talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Soundings were taken among the Israelis by Daniel Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Tel Aviv, and among the Palestinians by Ronald Schlicher, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem.
Powell, meanwhile, spoke by telephone Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany and Javier Solana, the senior European Union diplomat.
Aaron D. Miller, longtime State Department specialist on the Middle East, will accompany Zinni, a former Marine general.
In the Rose Garden, Bush called on Arafat to make a "maximum effort to end terrorism against Israel." And he urged Sharon to show restraint in reprisals.
"Our message is to both sides, 'Reduce violence."' Bush said.