WASHINGTON (AP) – Saudi Arabia asked President Bush on Sunday to intervene in Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon to stop the mounting deaths.

“We requested a cease-fire to allow for a cessation of hostilities,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said after an Oval Office meeting with Bush.

Saud said he gave the president a letter from Saudi King Abdullah asking that Bush help seek an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East conflict.

Saud and four other Saudi officials met with Bush for more than an hour Sunday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also participated in the meeting before departing for Israel in the first U.S. diplomatic effort on the ground since Israel began bombing Lebanon on July 12.

Rice and Bush have rejected calls for an immediate cease-fire, saying it does not make sense if the terrorist threat from Hezbollah is not addressed. They have said Israel has a right to defend itself from terrorism and that Hezbollah must return two captured Israeli soldiers and stop firing missiles and rockets into Israel if they want the fighting to stop.

Saud said Bush wants the violence to stop, although he did not say how Bush responded to the request for an immediate halt to Israel’s bombing.

“I found the president very conscious of the destruction and the bloodshed that the Lebanese are suffering,” Saud said. “His anxiety (is) to see the cessation of hostilities. I have heard that from him personally, and that is why he is sending Ms. Rice to work out the details.”

The White House would not discuss the proposal after the meeting. Senior administration officials referred all requests for comment to a spokeswoman, Eryn Witcher, who read a three-sentence statement listing the participants and saying only that they have “shared goals of helping the people of Lebanon and restoring sovereignty of the government of Lebanon and building stronger Lebanese armed forces.”

“They discussed the humanitarian situation and reconstruction and putting conditions in place for an end to violence,” Witcher said.

Witcher said participants in the meeting including Saud; Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the secretary general of the national security council; Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States; Adil al-Jubayr, the counselor to Abdullah; and Rihab Massoud, the deputy secretary general of the Saudi national security council.

She did not answer questions beyond the script, including what requests Bush and Rice made of the Saudis. When asked to respond to their request for an immediate cease-fire, she said White House officials have spoken about the administration’s position in the past.

For years, the Saudis have been among the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world, despite strains from U.S. pressures aimed at increasing democracy in the conservative kingdom.

The Saudis are among several moderate Arab countries that have worried about expanding influence in the Middle East by Iran, which create Hezbollah and has helped train and finance the organization. On the other hand, they cannot afford to appear too supportive of American or Israeli interests for fear of alienating their own citizens.

Saud spoke to reporters outside the West Wing as he left the White House.

“There is only one problem in this crisis: It is Lebanon, and the inability of Lebanon to exercise its sovereignty over its territory,” Saud said. “Everybody who needs to help, who must help, should help.”

Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said before the meeting that the U.S. will stand firmly behind Israel, noting that an attack on an ally is considered an attack on the U.S.

“We are allies, and we will support Israel in its right to self-defense,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “At the same time, we will do everything possible to make sure the crisis has a minimal impact on civilians.

“The purpose is to maintain a sustainable cease-fire,” Bolten said. “It’s sustainable only if we get to the root problem, which is Hezbollah, a terrorist organization.”

Bolten said international peacekeepers might be needed in Lebanon to help end the fighting, but that U.S. troop involvement was unlikely.

“Secretary Rice said she didn’t consider it all that likely,” Bolten said, adding that Rice would discuss with allies whether and when force is appropriate, as well as what form it might take. As for an international operation, Bolten said, “Secretary Rice said we’re open to that.”

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said his country would accept a temporary international force, preferably headed by NATO, along the Lebanese border to keep Hezbollah guerrillas away from Israel, according to officials in the minister’s office.

John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Bush administration would take Peretz’s NATO suggestion seriously.

“We have been looking carefully at the possibility of a multinational force, perhaps authorized by the Security Council, but not a U.N.-helmeted force,” Bolton said.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the idea of a NATO force, without U.S. soldiers.

“It would not a good idea for the United States troops to be in Lebanon,” said Lugar. “I don’t say that in a qualified way. I just say this categorically. We’re going to have troops there, I believe of one country or another, but not the United States of America. We are extended in the area.”

Rice plans meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, she will go to Rome for sessions with representatives of European and moderate Arab governments that are meant to shore up the weak democratic government in Lebanon.

“She’ll be talking to friends and allies as to whether and when force is appropriate and how it should be constructed,” White House aide Bolten said.

Bush said he has directed Rice to discuss with Mideast leaders how best to end the fighting in Lebanon. The chief U.S. diplomat will not meet with Hezbollah leaders or their Syrian backers.

Bolten spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Bolton appeared on CNN’s “Late Edition” and “Fox News Sunday.” Lugar was on CNN.

AP-ES-07-23-06 1801EDT

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