Secretary of State Colin Powell has given a tentative welcome to a Saudi Arabian proposal for sending Arab and Muslim troops to join peacekeeping operations in Iraq. Mr. Powell discussed the issue in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
The Saudi proposal, which would involve troop contributions from Muslim states in Asia and the Middle East, but not Iraq's immediate neighbors, has been under diplomatic discussion for about two weeks, but only became known on Wednesday.
In his first public comments, Mr. Powell welcomed what he described as "preliminary ideas" from the Saudis. He says Arab and Muslim troops could either be part of the American-led coalition or a separate entity and could go to Iraq to secure facilities or protect the United Nations presence in the country, which will lay groundwork for elections next year.
But, in a joint media appearance with Iraqi Prime Minister Alawi, Mr. Powell said key questions remain unanswered, including who would command the Muslim troops and whether they would replace those of the 31-nation coalition.
"The Saudis have indicated some conditions that would have to me met, as they see it, with respect to chain-of-command arrangements, with respect to what the troops would be doing, whether it's an offset to existing coalition troops in the country," said Mr. Powell. "So there are many questions that have to be answered, but we do welcome the Saudi initiative and will be examining it very, very closely."
Saudi officials say the plan would be acceptable to Arab public opinion, only to the extent that the Muslim troops in Iraq would be seen as hastening the departure of American-led forces.
Although U.S. and Saudi officials have not named countries that might be asked to participate, likely candidates are understood to include - among others - Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Morocco, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Prime Minister Allawi, who has been discussing the proposal this week with Saudi officials, has sent out letters to countries that might be candidates. He told reporters here at least some of the replies have been favorable.
Speaking after one of the bloodiest days of the Iraqi insurgency to date, Mr. Allawi cast the conflict in his country as part of a global war against terrorism and said other Muslim countries have a stake in helping Iraq's new government prevail.
"We are going to win. We have to win. There is no other route. And, I call upon the leaders of the Islamic countries and the Arab countries to close ranks, because this is really, basically, it's our fight. Those are people who claim to be part of Islam. They are not. They claim to be part of the Arabs. They are not. The values of Islam and the values of Arabism are different," says Mr. Allwai. "And, really, the assurance is that we all close ranks and fight and defeat these evil forces."
No Arab nations are currently in the coalition, which numbers about 160,000 troops - all but about 20,000 of whom are American.
The Bush administration has long sought to augment the force with more Muslim troops. Mr. Powell says the "basic conditions" Islamic states have set for participation have already been met. He says a sovereign Iraqi government is now up and running and there is a United Nations mandate for peacekeeping troops under Security Council resolution 15-46, approved last month.