The Bush administration appealed Monday to Saudi Arabia to use its influence in the Arab world to help ease tensions sweeping the Middle East and western Europe over published cartoons of Islam's prophet Muhammad in Denmark.

While European and Muslim politicians around the world called for calm, the administration urged Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role to stem Muslim protests.

"Certainly the leaders of the Saudi government might be individuals who might fulfill that role," spokesman Sean McCormack said. "There are others in the region who also might fulfill that role as well."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, meanwhile, issued a broad appeal to "all governments to take steps to lower tensions and prevent violence."

McCormack said the United States strongly condemned acts of violence. He said Assistant Secretary of State David Welch called the Syrian ambassador over the weekend "to express our strong protest and condemnation" of the torching of the Danish embassy in Damascus on Saturday.

"Syria is a country where protests don't just occur spontaneously, certainly not of this sort, not without the knowledge and support of the government," McCormack said.

On Saturday, the Norwegian embassy in Damascus also was set ablaze, and on Sunday, the Danish embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, was burned during a rampage by thousands of Muslim protesters.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to the Danish and Norwegian foreign ministers over the weekend, McCormack said.

A South African court last Saturday prohibited newspapers from publishing the cartoons. And an editor of a weekly in Jordan was arrested and charged with insulting religion after the cartoons were published.

But the Bush administration sought to strike a balance between freedom of expression and igniting violence.

"Along with free speech, with that type of freedom of expression, comes responsibilities," McCormack said. "And we would condemn any acts of violence that might be associated with this issue."

"We understood why many Muslims found the cartoons offensive," he said. "But we also spoke out very clearly in support of freedom of the press."