Secretary of State Colin Powell, completing the first day of a crucial Middle East mission, has welcomed word that Israel is pulling back from some West Bank towns, and says he hopes it is the start of a definitive withdrawal process. Mr. Powell met late Monday with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah.

Mr. Powell heard strong concerns about the Israeli military campaign from both the Saudi Crown Prince and earlier from Morocco's King Mohammed. In a talk with reporters after two and a half hours with Saudi Arabia's defacto ruler, Mr. Powell welcomed the Israeli announcement as an encouraging sign, and said he hopes it is not a case of withdrawing troops from some locations and putting more elsewhere. "Prime Minister Sharon has always said he had no intention to remain in these cities and towns and that he would pull back in due course. He said he would try to finish it as quickly as possible," says Mr. Powell. "After his discussion with the President, he indicated he would try to expedite his efforts. And so let us hope that this is not a little of this and a little bit of that, but the beginning of the pullback."

Mr. Powell said there was a growing consensus in Washington and elsewhere that the military offensive however justified Israel felt it was had created a "new dynamic" that was damaging the strategic situation of both Israel and the United States. He also said he hoped that with a pullback under way, U.S. Arab allies will not delay in coming forward to support U.S. efforts to defuse the crisis:

"I need their help to take the message to all the Palestinian leaders, to the Palestinian people and to the Arab street that violence is not the way to achieve our mutually-desired goal of a Palestinian state," he said. "And that I will need help in this not only talking to Chairman Arafat but to other Palestinian leaders, those in charge of various organizations. And so we have to move forward together. It isn't going to be enough to say the United States has to get in the middle and solve the problem."

A senior Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel Al-Jubeir told reporters traveling with Secretary Powell that full-scale Arab political help was contingent on a full Israeli withdrawal, deployment of U-S monitors in the region and American help to rebuild Palestinian institutions damaged in recent days by Israeli forces.

The influential Saudi official said U.S. interests in the region had suffered "gravely" because of the Israeli offensive and that Washington's credibility and prestige were collapsing.

Mr. Powell sees Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo Tuesday before going on to Madrid for meetings with, among others, his European Union and Russian counterparts. He will also visit Jordan's King Abdullah before arriving in Jerusalem Friday for what are expected to be at least three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Mr. Powell, who was pressed by the Moroccan and Saudi leaders to meet Mr. Arafat, said here he was looking forward to such an opportunity. That was a change in tone from earlier comments, in which he had said he would see the besieged Palestinian leader if the circumstances permitted it.