Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, in talks Wednesday with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, proposed the creation of an Islamic force to help stabilize Iraq and potentially quicken the withdrawal of the U.S.-led military coalition, according to senior Arab and U.S. diplomats.
Saudi Arabia has spent about three weeks exploring the possibility of an Islamic force with Arab and Muslim countries and the United Nations. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, discussed specifics of the idea with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan last week in Vienna, according to a senior Saudi diplomat.
Saudi officials said they launched the initiative to address mounting concerns in the Islamic world about the ongoing deployment of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq as well as Saudi Arabia's own security concerns.
"We're taking this initiative because a) we want to help the Iraqi people get back on their feet and reclaim their sovereignty as quickly as possible, b) because there is a tremendous desire in the Arab and Muslim world to help Iraq and help the Iraqi people get back on their feet and c) we're doing this because instability in Iraq has a negative impact on Saudi Arabia and stability in Iraq has a very positive impact on Saudi Arabia. We want to stabilize the situation in Iraq," said Adel Jubeir, chief foreign policy adviser to Abdullah.
A senior Saudi official said that no countries had signed on but that Pakistan, Malaysia, Algeria, Bangladesh and Morocco were among strong possibilities. Countries that border Iraq, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, would not be included, he said.
The State Department, which has been in charge of Iraq policy since the June 28 handover of political power to an interim government, reacted positively to the concept.
"We discussed some ideas with the Saudis that they have been discussing with others about how to facilitate the deployment of troops from Muslim countries not bordering on Iraq," the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, told reporters traveling with Powell. "The goal they have is to help Iraqis establish security. It's a goal we support. And we'll keep talking to them about it."
A senior State Department official traveling with Powell said the United States was interested in exploring specifics of the plan. He initially described the Islamic force as "supplemental" but later retracted that and said the force could help "lower the demand" for coalition forces. The coalition has no Arab members.
President Bush and the crown prince discussed the Saudi initiative during a 10-minute telephone conversation Wednesday, according to sources familiar with the conversation, but did not talk about details. In Washington, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Bush thanked the Saudi leader for meeting with Powell and discussed the situation in Iraq and Saudi Arabia's efforts to fight terrorism on its own soil.
The Saudi government also talked with Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who is also visiting the kingdom, about the prospects for an Islamic force. Senior cabinet-level officials traveling with Allawi said the new government was already pressing for Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia to send troops.
In the first week after assuming power, Allawi sent letters formally requesting troops to the governments of Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Pakistan, Iraqi officials said. Allawi is scheduled to hold talks with Powell on this proposal as well as other security and reconstruction issues in Iraq, U.S. officials said.
Saudi officials stressed that their idea was still in a preliminary stage. Among the many issues to be explored is whether the Islamic force would be part of a U.N.-endorsed multinational force, as Iraq insists, or whether it would come under a separate U.N. umbrella. "We continue to look for ideas about how to move forward," a senior Saudi official said.
The United States is particularly concerned about issues of command and control. During two weeks of discussions between the Bush administration and the kingdom, which shares a long border with Iraq, the United States was initially skeptical because its own requests to Muslim countries had been largely spurned. But an invitation by a Muslim country, responding to mounting concerns in the Islamic world about Iraq, may elicit more interest, especially if it is seen as a way of getting U.S. forces out of Iraq, Arab sources said. Saudi Arabia, as the oil-rich guardian of the Islamic world's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, has significant influence among Muslims worldwide.
During an earlier stop by Powell in Cairo, Egypt rebuffed a U.S.-led effort to put new pressure on the Sudanese government to rein in the Janjaweed militia in Darfur, a region in western Sudan where tens of thousands of Africans have been killed and more than a million displaced during a wave of attacks by the marauding Arab fighters. The government of President Hosni Mubarak instead urged Powell to give the Sudanese government more time to fulfill its promise to secure the region.
"I told the secretary of state of the importance of giving the element of time to the Sudanese government to carry out what it has taken upon itself in the way of commitments. I assured the secretary of state that we sense that the Sudanese government is trying hard and we must extend the hand of assistance," Egypt's new foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, said during a news conference with Powell.
The United States had hoped to win the support of Egypt, Sudan's northern neighbor, for a draft U.N. resolution that threatened economic sanctions against the government of President Omar Hassan Bashir if Sudan did not crack down on the militiamen and ease the delivery of international aid to camps for displaced people. The proposed resolution would give Sudan 30 days to act before the Security Council considered measures to demonstrate its intent to punish the government.
In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper al-Akhbar, Powell expressed deepening frustration. "The Sudanese government knows what it has to do. It ought to be doing it now," he said. "It ought to be bringing the Janjaweed under control and not waiting to see 'how many more months do I get.' Let's do it now."