By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 24, 2006; A13
The Saudi foreign minister personally urged President Bush yesterday to intervene to stop the violence in Lebanon, the most direct sign of mounting frustration among key Arab states with what they see as a hands-off U.S. posture toward Israeli strikes against Hezbollah.
In an Oval Office meeting yesterday afternoon, Prince Saud al-Faisal said, he delivered a letter to Bush from Saudi King Abdullah asking for U.S. help in arranging an immediate cease-fire, a stance U.S. officials have repeatedly rejected on the grounds that it is premature. U.S. officials would not comment directly on the request, saying only that the two sides discussed the humanitarian situation, reconstruction and how to end the violence.
"I found the president very conscious of the destruction and the bloodshed that the Lebanese are suffering," Saud told reporters after the meeting. "His commitment [is] to see the cessation of hostilities. I have heard that from him personally, and that is why he is sending [Condoleezza] Rice to work out the details."
Secretary of State Rice said the need for a cease-fire is "urgent" but cautioned that it had to be on terms that ensure it will last.
The Saudi request for a cease-fire promised to further complicate an already difficult diplomatic mission for Rice, who departed for meetings in Israel and Italy last night after joining Bush in conferring with the Saudi delegation. The United States had been hoping to enlist moderate Arab allies in an effort to pressure Syria and Iran to rein in Hezbollah, but the Saudi move yesterday seemed to cloud that initiative.
Although the Saudis had initially criticized Hezbollah's actions in triggering the new violence, diplomats say the kingdom's leaders have become increasingly distressed about the growing humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. Israeli airstrikes have produced numerous civilian casualties and vast devastation.
One senior European diplomat said the Saudis were also concerned that the package they expect the United States to present to European and Arab allies in Rome this week will be too heavily anti-Iran and anti-Syria.
U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained over terrorism issues and the Bush administration's democracy initiative in the Middle East, but the kingdom remains perhaps the most important American ally in the Arab world, and King Abdullah's views carry influence with Bush.
Mindful of the growing anger among Arab countries, U.S. officials said they expect Rice to convey the administration's concern over the humanitarian problem caused by Israel's choices of targets when she meets with Israeli officials today. But they made no secret of their continuing skepticism of the value of an immediate cease-fire or of their desire to see Israel further weaken Hezbollah, which before the outbreak of hostilities had thousands of fighters and a large cache of missiles and other weapons.
Speaking before the Saudi meeting, White House chief of staff Joshua B. Bolten said the United States is open to the establishment of a international military force to help the Lebanese government maintain security. But he suggested that the time is not yet ripe.
"The purpose of an international force has to be to maintain a sustainable cease-fire," Bolten said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "A cease-fire is sustainable only if we get at the root problem, which is Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that has kidnapped Israeli soldiers and sent rockets into civilian areas in the sovereign territory of Israel."
The events yesterday underscored the complex task awaiting Rice on her first diplomatic foray since the hostilities began in Lebanon July 12, after Hezbollah's cross-border raid triggered a fierce Israeli response. The Bush administration has strongly backed Israel's actions while cautioning Israel to minimize civilian casualties. But that posture has angered the Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, on whom the administration must depend to be interlocutors with Syria and Iran.
The United States has refused to negotiate with Syria and Iran, the countries that are thought to have the greatest influence with Hezbollah.
At a dinner last week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, derided Rice's trip as "sitting in front of a mirror, talking to herself" if she does not deal diplomatically with the major players.
Rice dismissed calls for the United States to talk directly with Syria, noting that former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and two other senior State Department officials had tried to deal with Damascus -- always unsuccessfully. "The problem is not that we have not talked to Syria but that they have not acted," she said, adding that Damascus has long known what Washington believes it should do.
On CBS's "Face the Nation," Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, said his country is open to a new dialogue with the United States. "What we are calling for is de-escalation, diplomatic engagement and for the United States to restart playing the role it used to play in the past, the role of the broker of peace," he said.
That idea was shot down by Bolten, who said the administration had close, direct contacts with Syria in Bush's first term, to little effect. "They continued to allow terrorism to flourish," Bolten said. "They supported Hezbollah."
Several major issues will be before Rice on her trip, including a possible cease-fire, the creation of a stabilization force and how to pressure Hezbollah. U.S. officials say they are increasingly focused on the rising civilian death toll, the dislocation of tens of thousands of families and the destruction of buildings and homes.
"The response to the humanitarian problem caused so far has not been adequate," said a senior U.S. official involved, who insisted on anonymity to speak frankly about the situation. "It's an issue for us. We are being partially blamed for it. Something has to be done -- and not in weeks or months. This has to be done urgently."
Some U.S. officials say they have been disappointed with earlier warnings to Israel -- which have gone unheeded -- about the wider regional repercussions of military tactics. "There has been considerable damage to infrastructure and civilians," the senior official added. "We're puzzled by some of the targets. So this question is point number one."
Refining Israel's tactics and limiting its targets are keys to the new U.S. effort to generate more political support for a lasting solution, which might involve more military operations, at a time when the Europeans are pressing for an immediate cease-fire.
Another issue is the composition of an international force to keep Hezbollah away from Israel's border. Israel wants a muscular force that could either disarm Hezbollah or prevent future attacks. But U.S. officials acknowledge the limited interest in another coalition force in the Middle East.
The Israeli defense minister indicated yesterday that his country might accept a force headed by NATO -- an idea John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said would be worth exploring. Both Bolton, on CNN, and chief of staff Bolten indicated that U.S. troops would not be involved.
In Rome, Rice hopes to refine ideas for the proposed international force with European and Arab allies as well as discuss reconstruction aid for Lebanon. The goal is to move quickly after the hostilities to strengthen the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and to draw national support for the prospect of rebuilding Beirut, a city once called the Paris of the Middle East.
Rice learned late last night that Saudi Arabia would attend the Rome conference on Lebanon. Other parties tentatively scheduled to send delegations include Egypt, Jordan, Britain, France, Russia, Germany, the United Nations and the World Bank.
Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.