President Bush intervened last week in a dispute between his top military commander in Saudi Arabia, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and the Saudi government over who controls the decision to launch U.S. offensive operations on the Arabian peninsula, but the issue remains unresolved, according to knowledgeable sources.

The dispute highlights the sensitive questions of command and control that surround the U.S. deployment in Saudi Arabia and the issue of Saudi sovereignty that both sides must address in considering responses to potential military confrontation between U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The argument was touched off when a top Saudi commander, Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan, told reporters in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday that any decision to use U.S. forces deployed in the kingdom for offensive operations would have to be preceded by consultations between Bush and the Saudi monarch, King Fahd.

Schwarzkopf, who has established the headquarters for the U.S. Central Command at a Saudi military facility, was said to have objected strenuously to the remark and complained immediately to the Defense Department and White House. Sources said Schwarzkopf was concerned that the Saudi position might in some cases constrain U.S. forces from responding to a variety of military contingencies.

In Washington later the same day, Bush asked Saudi Arabia's ambassador, Bandar bin Sultan, also the brother of the Saudi general, to come to the White House to iron out the dispute.

Bush conveyed the military concern that U.S. forces be unquestionably under U.S. command. Bandar reiterated what the Saudis contend is the original agreement between Fahd and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney: that U.S. forces were invited into the kingdom to defend it from attack from Iraq and, by implication, would need Saudi permission for anything but defensive operations. One source described the agreement further as stating that any use of Saudi bases to launch a strike against Iraqi forces that might draw retaliation against the kingdom cannot be made without consultation and the king's approval.

Officials familiar with the dispute say that Bush did not take issue with Bandar's statement of Saudi policy, which was reiterated in public comments Sunday by Bandar's father, Saudi Defense Minister Sultan bin Abdul Aziz. He told reporters in Saudi Arabia that the kingdom will not serve as "a theater for any action that is not defensive."

White House officials emphasized that U.S.-Saudi cooperation was based on congruent goals of defending Saudi Arabia and allowing the United Nations trade embargo time to work against Iraq. In effect, the question of offensive operations was deferred, officials said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said in an interview last week that the command question is not fully settled. "The chain of command -- who's in charge -- it's still being negotiated," he said. "We're all getting the know each other . . . {and} we still have a good deal of diplomatic work to do in the event that affirmative strikes are required and the whole command structure of how to do that."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) also indicated Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the issue had been deferred.

"It's important that we . . . having gotten the Arab nations, a number of them, together with us, that we consult with them," Nunn said. "I'm not saying we give them a veto. We may reach the stage where we have to use military force, even if they don't agree, but we need to consult with them, and we need to give the present strategy a chance to work."

Some administration officials were said to feel that Schwarzkopf had overreacted to Khalid's remarks. In a meeting with reporters on Friday, Schwarzkopf reacted somewhat testily when asked about the Saudi official's statement two days earlier that Fahd and Bush would have to approve use of U.S. military force.

"Why don't you ask King Fahd and President Bush?" Schwarzkopf replied. "I'm the military commander on the ground, and when I get my orders, I know exactly what I am going to do: I'm going to carry them out."

Schwarzkopf then said that he thought that the characterization of the command question "probably is a great simplification of the arrangements that exist."

The general's last remark reflected what some military sources said were complicated issues of how to use U.S. military power for some offensive missions that might arise, such as air strikes into Iraq or occupied Kuwait in retaliation for Iraqi hostage-taking or mistreatment of hostages.

Last week, U.S. officials quietly asked Saudi permission to base some B-52 aircraft at a base outside Jiddah on the Red Sea coast after Egypt had turned down a similiar request, but the Saudis were reluctant to accept the planes because of their offensive capability, according to administration officials.

In addition, the U.S. military soon will have substantial U.S. Marine forces afloat in the Persian Gulf. These forces come under Schwarzkopf's command as soon as they enter the region, and some of them could be involved in the offensive "contingencies" that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have planned as options for the president.

From the outset of the U.S. deployment, the U.S. military has had to split its mission down the middle to abide by the Saudi stipulation that U.S. forces in the kingdom be strictly in a defensive mode. When Bush authorized U.S. warships to block Iraqi commercial shipping, the "offensive" rules of engagement were carefully separated from the "defensive" rules of engagement drafted for U.S. ground and air forces based in Saudi Arabia.

U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia report to Schwarzkopf, but all Arab and other regional forces report to Khalid.

After Fahd requested U.S. forces to come to Saudi Arabia's defense, both Schwarzkopf and the Pentagon drafted memoranda on how the command structure should operate. The Pentagon wanted to name a senior Saudi official as the supreme commander for all U.S., Saudi and multinational forces, but Schwarzkopf favored "parallel" command structures that would leave him firmly in command of U.S. forces.

Until Khalid's remarks last week, the issue of command appeared to have been settled under an informal arrangement by which Fahd serves as titular commander in chief of all forces, Schwarzkopf is in charge of U.S. forces and Khalid commands the "Joint Arab-Islamic Forces."

Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.