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US, Saudi Officials Discuss Islamic Peacekeepers in Iraq - 2004-07-28

Secretary of State Colin Powell is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi officials on Iraq, including a Saudi proposal for a Muslim security force that could at least partially replace the U.S.-led coalition. Mr. Powell will meet Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in Jeddah Thursday.

U.S. officials are giving few details of the proposal being advanced by Saudi Arabia. But they say the idea, though it needs to be fleshed out, is interesting and could be useful, and it has been the key issue in a series of meetings here between Secretary Powell and Saudi officials, including the de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

The United States has long been seeking to enlist additional countries, especially Islamic states, for the peacekeeping operations in Iraq, in particular as part of an envisaged force to protect an expanding United Nations presence that will lay the groundwork for Iraqi elections next year.

At a joint news conference between two late night sessions with Mr. Powell, the Saudi foreign minister said he and the secretary had "preliminary" discussions on the issue of Muslim peacekeepers and that the dialogue would continue.

A senior Saudi official told reporters the envisaged force would include contingents from Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, but not immediate neighbors of Iraq, and would go there at the request of Iraq and under a United Nations umbrella.

Still to be defined is whether the Islamic forces would supplement, or even replace, the 31-nation U.S.-led coalition. A senior U.S. official who briefed reporters was vague on that point, saying that to the extent that the Islamic troops improved security conditions in Iraq, then coalition troops could be removed.

At the news session with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud, Secretary Powell declined comment on the matter, while condemning the spate of insurgent attacks in Iraq Wednesday that killed scores of people, mainly Iraqi civilians. He said they are aimed at wrecking progress being made by Iraq's interim government toward democracy:

"The ones who are trying to undercut and destroy this achievement are those leftover elements of the previous regime and terrorists who have come into Iraq to make trouble," he said. "And so the terrible scenes that we continue to see, the horrible murder of innocent Iraqis in Baquba today and other actions of this kind cannot be allowed to succeed. They must be fought against, they must be resisted by the international coalition as well as by Iraqi security forces. Because the Iraqi people want a life free of this kind of murderous activity, this kind of terrorism, this kind of barbarism."

Mr. Powell is due to hold talks talks here Thursday with Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, who has also been meeting with Saudi officials and has sent letters to a number of Muslim countries, soliciting their participation in peacekeeping operations.

The Saudi government is understood to believe that public opinion in the Muslim world opposing participation in Iraq could be swayed to the extent that Islamic peacekeepers, rather than helping U.S.-led forces in Iraq, are seen as hastening their withdrawal