DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, SEPT. 1 -- -- Saudi Arabia's defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, sought to assure Iraq today that the U.S. military buildup here was purely defensive and said U.S. forces will not be allowed to attack Kuwait from Saudi soil to rescue American hostages.

At his first press conference since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, Sultan said the kingdom will not serve as "a theater for any action that is not defensive." The Saudi government has not been contacted by any nation to suggest using Saudi Arabia as a staging ground for a hostage rescue operation, he added.

"There also exists a wide range of options with regard to pursuing the hostage situation besides" military action, the prince said. As an example, he cited diplomatic efforts by U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who today concluded two days of talks in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

Sultan repeatedly said, in answer to questions about Saudi Arabia's attitude toward possible use of U.S. forces here against Iraq, that "the presence of foreign troops is to defend the kingdom of Saudi Arabia" and not to start a war to oust Iraq from Kuwait.

"You can be sure the objective is to achieve a peaceful resolution of the issue," he said, insisting that "diplomatic means" may still succeed in forcing Iraq to withdraw.

"War should be the last resort when -- and only after -- all other means have been exhausted," he said.

The prince appealed to Western reporters to confine their questions to those that "serve the cause of peace" and to avoid escalating tensions by focusing on the possibility of war.

A Saudi official said Sultan was seeking to assuage Iraqi fears of an American attack in hopes of helping to persuade President Saddam Hussein to release Western hostages.

At one point, Sultan said nonetheless that "readiness for war is a first step toward peace" and that strengthening Saudi Arabia's defense was important to solving the crisis through peaceful means.

Sultan also said Saudi Arabia had placed "no limit" on the number of Arab troops coming here to help defend the kingdom. Asked about reports that the Saudis were reluctant to accept an Egyptian offer to send 30,000 additional troops, Sultan said the decision was "entirely up to the leadership" of Arab governments.

Western sources said one reason for Saudi reluctance to accept larger Arab forces was the government's realization that it had to provide all the food, transportation and other logistical support for them. In addition, Arab and Islamic governments are pressing the Saudis for large payments in return for sending troops.

Meanwhile, a second group of U.S. senators, many of them members of the Foreign Relations Committee, visited American troops in the field here today. They heard the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, say that the main mission here is to deter an Iraqi attack. No swift action against Iraq is planned, he said.

Among the senators were several former strong opponents of American arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These senators said they now have no objections to the Bush administration's plans to sell up to $8 billion in planes, tanks and other weapons to the kingdom.

"I was the leader of the opposition, but not anymore," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). "Now they are allied with us and they are sitting on the front lines. They will be the first casualties."

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) seemed to agree. "Obviously we will be a lot more receptive than I was previously" to U.S. arms packages for the Saudis, he said.

Some senators warned that the United States likely faces a long standoff with Iraq, and they urged persistence. "We have to get ready psychologically and militarily here and at home for our being here a long time," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). "Congress is determined to keep the morale high here."