President Bush on Sunday said the world must "deal harshly" with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and a leading Republican senator said U.S. troops may have to go after them.
"The free world and those who love freedom and peace must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers," Bush told reporters when asked whether Israel was justified in recent attacks against the group.
"That's just the way it is in the Middle East," he said as he left Sunday services at First Congregational Church in Kennebunkport.
The remarks were his most extensive on the situation in the Middle East since a wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence last week threw his peace "road map" into turmoil, and they intensified earlier calls for action against Hamas.
Hamas has defied the Palestinian Authority and rejected the road map as too generous to Israel. It claimed responsibility for the most lethal incident in the current outbreak, a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Wednesday which killed 17.
The Bush administration had criticized Israel for trying to assassinate a Hamas leader on Tuesday, but trained its sights on Hamas in the wake of the Jerusalem bombing and complaints from pro-Israel groups in the United States.
Bush said the United States was helping the Palestinian Authority reconstitute a security force to take on Hamas, but declined to say if Washington would provide arms or money.
U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "clearly, if force is required ultimately to root out terrorism, it is possible there would be American participation."
Asked if that meant such troops would go after Hamas or other groups, he said, "That may be the conclusion."
"...It may not be just Hamas but clearly Hamas is right in the gunsights," he added.
"DON'T UNDERESTIMATE PRESIDENT BUSH"
Whether to insert forces into the volatile situation is being considered, including "whether they are to be all by themselves" or in conjunction with a United Nations or NATO force, Lugar said on "Fox News Sunday."
"The terrorist aspect really has to be dealt with and that's why I say don't underestimate President Bush," Lugar said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Friday appeared to rule out a role for U.S. troops in enforcing Palestinian security.
"Putting American military, for example, in between, in the region, deploying U.S. troops -- that's something that we have not supported," Fleischer said.
France said on Sunday it would discuss with European Union colleagues the possibility of sending peacekeeping forces to the Middle East.
Bush has sent veteran diplomat John Wolf to the region to prevent the failure of the peace "road map" affirmed at a June 4 summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Bush on Sunday also left open the possibility of sending U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to the region. He had earlier said working on Middle East peace would be a "matter of the highest priority" for Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell is due to travel to Jordan for meetings next Sunday.
Bush said it appeared last week's bloodshed, in which more than 50 people were killed, had eased, but violence would continue. "Until these people are brought to justice, those who will kill innocent people in order to deny the establishment of a Palestinian state, there will be violence," he said.
He gave no indication he would personally call Israeli or Palestinian leaders, saying, "We've got plenty of contact with the Israeli government as well as the Palestinian Authority."
The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, on Sunday defended Israel's attacks on Hamas. He said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Israel was attacking Hamas "reluctantly" in the face of relentless attack from Hamas and was eager for the Palestinian Authority to deliver on commitments to provide security.