Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Saudis propose a Muslim force for Iraq

SOLDIERS The notion of an international Muslim or Arab force is far from being realized, and Iraq would not welcome troops from neighboring countries

REUTERS , Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has proposed to the US that troops from Arab or Muslim nations could be sent to Iraq, Saudi officials said after talks with US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday.

The idea -- somewhat surprising given the reluctance of Muslim and Arab nations to contribute forces so far -- could shore up the US coalition and ease the need for US troops who are battling a fierce insurgency in Iraq.

As described by US and Saudi officials, the proposal could involve contributions of troops from across the Muslim world but not from Iraq's neighbors, which Iraqi officials have said they would not welcome. Saudi Arabia has a long border with Iraq.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters he and Powell had a "preliminary discussion" on the idea but would not say who might contribute or what conditions might be attached.

A senior Saudi official who asked not to be identified told reporters that Riyadh had already discussed the idea with countries that might provide troops, with the Iraqi government and with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He said a UN mandate, from existing resolutions or a new resolution, would be needed.

The US welcomed the idea but a senior US official privately made clear Washington wanted to hear more details about a proposal both sides said was in its infancy.

While US and Saudi officials would not name nations that might be asked to participate, likely candidates could include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Morocco and Indonesia.

A deployment by Muslim nations would be a public relations coup for the US, which has seen the US-led coalition in Iraq reduced by the withdrawal of the Philippines, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras.

It could also drag the contributors into the cauldron of Iraqi violence. After a brief lull following the June 28 US handover of sovereignty, guerrillas have stepped up suicide car bombings, assassinations and kidnappings to try to undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the US led coalition.

No Arab nations are now in the US-led coalition.

There are about 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq, roughly 140,000 of them from the US, which invaded last year to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein but now faces a fierce insurgency that it did not anticipate.

Adel al-Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, said his government put forward the idea in part because of a desire among Arab populations to help Iraq.

"We want to help the Iraqi people ... get back on their feet," Jubeir told reporters.

"We are doing this because instability in Iraq has a negative impact on Saudi Arabia and stability in Iraq has a very positive impact on Saudi Arabia," he said.

The Saudis appear to be betting that Muslim populations will support sending their troops to Iraq if they are seen as replacing coalition forces rather than propping up the US occupation of Iraq.

"The goal that they [the Saudis] have is to help the Iraqis establish security. It's a goal we support and we'll keep talking to them about it," US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

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