Sat, Jul 31, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Powell goes to Iraq over troops plan

SURPRISE VISIT The US secretary of state indicated that dispatching troops to Iraq from Muslim countries may assist in stabilizing the nation as well as the region


US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Baghdad early yesterday following talks with Saudi officials on a proposal to form a Muslim military force to help stamp out the deadly insurgency in Iraq.

US Embassy spokesman Bob Callahan said Powell was met at Baghdad International Airport by US ambassador John Negroponte.

Callahan said that Powell would meet top Iraqi officials, including President Ghazi al-Yawer and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, before leaving later yesterday.

Powell arrived in Iraq following meetings with Kuwaiti and Saudi leaders in their respective countries.

In the Saudi port city of Jiddah on Thursday, Powell met with Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who urged Muslim nations to dispatch troops to Iraq to help defeat an insurgency which he said threatens all Islamic countries.

Allawi made the appeal a day after Saudi officials disclosed they had initiated an effort to encourage the creation of a Muslim security force to help bring stability to Iraq.

Powell welcomed the Saudi initiative and said the time may be ripe for a more active role by Arab and Muslim countries based on the handover of sovereignty to Allawi, along with the approval of a UN Security Council resolution that gives legitimacy to his interim government.

"They now have a sovereign government that is up and run-ning," Powell said in Jiddah. "Based on that, there will be more intensive discussions on the basis of the Saudi initiative to see if more countries are willing to provide support."

Under the Saudi proposal, Arab and Muslim countries that do not border Iraq would be invited to contribute. Iraq believes involvement by its immediate neighbors in the country's security could possibly lead to political conflicts with them.

Later on Thursday, Powell flew to Kuwait, the fourth stop of a week-long tour of Central Europe and the Middle East.

He told reporters in Kuwait City that the Saudis were trying to shape their proposal in a way that garners maximum support from Arab and Muslim populations. He said Allawi has sent letters to leaders in some Arab and Muslim countries inviting them to dispatch forces.

Powell said he did not know whether the proposed force would complement the coalition or be a one-for-one substitution. The number of Muslim troops in the coalition is believed to be scant.

Many questions about the proposed force remain unanswered, including its size and the type of tasks it would be asked to fulfill. Nor is it clear whether Muslim countries would go along with the idea. Another issue is how such a force would relate to the existing US-led coalition.

While Arab governments and other Muslim countries say they want to help restore calm in Iraq -- and have an interest in ensuring violence does not destabilize the region -- they must move carefully to avoid angering their citizens, many of whom are hostile toward Iraq's US-backed government.

Powell seemed to take in stride an Iraqi decision to postpone by two weeks the convening of a national conference of a broad cross-section of Iraqis. The conference has been billed as an integral part of Iraq's democratic development.

The decision to delay, he said, "was a function of whether they actually were ready for it. Over the last several days, it started to look like it's better to do it right than in haste."

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