President George W. Bush's Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten said Sunday that international peacekeepers might be needed in Lebanon to help end the fighting between Israel and Hizbullah, but that US troop involvement was unlikely.
Bolten reaffirmed comments by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, ahead of her trip to the Middle East this week, that she did not think "it anticipated that US ground forces are expected" for a potential peacekeeping contingent.
Rice was departing late Sunday after joining Bush in a White House meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of the Saudi National Security Council.
Bolten said Bush was committed to assisting Israel as part of "its right to defend itself."
"The purpose is to maintain a sustainable cease-fire," Bolten said. "It's sustainable only if we get to the root problem, which is Hizbullah, a terrorist organization."
Israel's defense minister said Sunday that his country would accept a temporary international force, preferably headed by NATO, along the Lebanese border to keep Hizbullah guerrillas away from Israel, according to officials in the minister's office.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said the Bush administration would take Amir 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 UN-helmeted force," Bolton said.
"We haven't discussed the possibility of US boots on the ground in Lebanon. We want to be open-minded on what's doable here," Bolton said. "The main point being to see that Hizbullah does not return to its armed, operational capacity threatening Israel and that the institutions of Lebanon cover the whole the country."
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 US diplomat will not meet with Hizbullah leaders or their Syrian backers.
Bolten said Rice also would focus on getting humanitarian aid to those in need. Still, he said the US will stand firmly behind Israel, noting that an attack on an ally is considered an attack on the US.
"We are allies, and we will support Israel in its right to self-defense," he said. "At the same time, we will do everything possible to make sure the crisis has a minimal impact on civilians."
The White House meeting with the Saudis follows visits to Washington last week by Egypt's intelligence chief and foreign minister, who met with Rice and Bush's national security adviser.
Bush says his administration's diplomatic efforts in the Mideast will focus on strategy for confronting Hizbullah and its supporters in Syria and Iran. In his radio address Saturday, Bush said Syria has been Hizbullah's primary sponsor for years and helped provide shipments of Iranian weapons.