The director of the U.S. Peace Corps says his agency has recently put emphasis on expanding its presence in Muslim countries. The director says for decades, Peace Corps volunteers have presented what he called America's best face to the world.

Since the Peace Corps began 43 years ago, it has sent more than 170,000 volunteers to work in 135 countries.

At a luncheon speech at the National Press Club Thursday, Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez said the agency has adapted to the times, but still retains its foundations. "The principle mission of the Peace Corps is to promote global peace and friendship. And I would submit that if there was ever a time that we needed to advance the ideal of peace and friendship, promote cross-cultural understanding of people throughout the world, and promoting an understanding of Americans, that time is now," he said.

Mr. Vasquez said of the more than 70 countries the Peace Corps currently works in, 18 of them are predominantly Muslim countries. He added that this accounts for nearly 20 percent of the 7,500 Peace Corps volunteers. "Last year, we opened a new program in Azerbaijan. And we returned to Morocco, to Chad, to Jordan and Albania, all predominantly Muslim countries. These countries, I believe want to better understand America, and volunteers want to better understand their host countries and the people of those host countries," he said.

He said volunteers in Islamic countries work on a wide range of projects. "...implementing innovative ideas, like showing farmers in Senegal how to maximize their cashew yields, demonstrating computer skills to students in Bangladesh and creating after-school programs in the Gambia, that combine sports with information and preventing, also, through education and prevention programs, the spread of HIV," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Vasquez said 27 additional countries have requested a Peace Corps presence, including 13 Muslim countries. He said the main obstacle has been finding enough money to finance any expansion. The Peace Corps this year unsuccessfully requested $401 million from Congress. "We were not able to achieve full funding, so we have had to, not necessarily scale back, because we've increased the number of volunteers, but we have not been able to grow at the pace or level we would like to," he said.

The Peace Corps budget for fiscal year 2004 is $308 million.