U.S. welcomes Gaza ceasefire, Iran says not enough

* United States welcomes ceasefire

* United Nations expresses relief

* Iran says Israel forces withdrawal needed

* Pope urges prayers for peace

By Peter Millership

LONDON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - The United States welcomed Israel's ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and said it expected all parties to stop hostile actions immediately and the United Nations expressed relief.

Iran said the ceasefire was not enough and that Israel's military must withdraw, Turkey urged Western countries to engage with Hamas, and the pope urged the world to pray for peace in Gaza and the hundreds of victims killed in the conflict.

"The goal remains a durable and fully respected ceasefire that will lead to stabilisation and normalisation in Gaza," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after Israel called off its three-week offensive in the area.

"The United States commends Egypt for its efforts and remains deeply concerned by the suffering of innocent Palestinians," she added. "We welcome calls for immediate coordinated international action to increase assistance flows and will contribute to such efforts."

Hamas announced an immediate ceasefire by its fighters and allied groups in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, senior Hamas official Ayman Taha told Reuters, adding that the Islamists gave Israel a week to pull out its troops.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Israeli ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and urged Israel to withdraw all of its troops.

"I am relieved that the Israeli government has decided to cease hostilities," Ban told reporters. "This should be the first step leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza," he said, adding that he wanted the withdrawal "as soon as possible".

He said Hamas militants also needed to do their part to bring an end to the violence by halting their rocket attacks against southern Israel. "Hamas militants must stop firing rockets now," he said.


Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire which took effect at 2 a.m. (0000 GMT) on Sunday. Within hours, five rockets were fired at the Israeli town of Sderot, causing no casualties. Hamas announced its ceasefire later on Sunday.

European leaders and Ban will attend talks in Egypt on Sunday aimed at bolstering the ceasefire.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the ceasefire announcement showed the "victory of the Islamic resistance and the heroic people of Gaza" against Israel, the official IRNA news agency reported.

The Islamic Republic, an ally of Hamas, does not recognise Israel's right to exist and refers to it as the "Zionist regime". It has condemned Israel's attacks in Gaza.

"The mere halt in air, sea and land attacks, without the withdrawal of the (Israeli) forces from the occupied positions, would not be enough for the cessation of confrontation," Mottaki said. "It is necessary that the Zionist forces leave the occupied regions," he said, calling their presence "provocative".

An Israeli withdrawal and the opening of Gaza border crossings "can help set the stage for the return of calm", Mottaki said.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan criticised world leaders for leaving Hamas out of the peace process, saying it was a democratically elected political party.

He also warned that the situation in Gaza could take on a very different dimension if "Western countries" did not show appropriate sensitivity towards Hamas.

"This political party Hamas won an election with nearly 75 percent of the vote. The West, which has shown no respect for this embracing of democracy, is responsible for this situation," Erdogan told a news conference.

Pope Benedict, in his strongest comments yet on the situation in Gaza, on Sunday condemned the violence that he said had killed hundreds of "innocent victims".

Speaking at his weekly Sunday noon prayer, the pope also asked his listeners in St Peter's Square and around the world to pray for the success of all efforts "to end the tragedy" and bring about lasting peace.

"Let us remember to the Lord today the hundreds of children, elderly, women who have fallen as innocent victims of unheard of violence, (as well as) the wounded, those who are mourning their loved ones and who have lost their possessions," he said. (Reporting by Thomas Grove, Hashem Kalantari, Fredrik Dahl, Philip Pullella, Louis Charbonneau and Jim Wolf)