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Iraq: U.S. Rejects Saudi Proposal For Muslim UN Force

Washington has formally rejected a Saudi proposal for a Muslim force under UN control to guard UN election staffers in Iraq. The White House says U.S. commanders have strong reservations about such force because it would be outside the coalition command structure. But as Washington rejects the initiative, where does that leave U.S. hopes for convincing Muslim countries to take part in securing Iraq?

Prague, 19 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The rejection of the Saudi plan provides a new measure of the difficulties Washington is having in convincing Muslim states to join the security effort in Iraq on terms both sides can live with.

The White House said yesterday that it would not support the Saudi initiative due to objections by U.S. field commanders in Iraq and Iraqi government officials.

Spokesman Scott McClellan said the Iraqi government had some concerns about having troops from a neighboring country inside Iraq. He said the multinational commanders also had some concerns about forces operating outside the chain of command structure.

Phillip Mitchell, a military specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the commanders of the multinational forces consider a single chain-of-command structure in Iraq essential for field operations.

"Without coordinated command-and-control of all forces on the ground there is a very distinct possibility of confusion," Mitchell said. "And without any coordination it's quite possible that operations being carried out by, let's say, forces under one command and operations being carried out by forces under a separate command, those two forces could clash and we could see clashes of 'Blue on Blue' [allied forces mistakenly attacking each other due to poor communications]."
The Saudi plan envisioned organizing a force of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers from Muslim states to serve under UN control.

This week's rejection of the Saudi proposal could mark the end of the longest-standing initiative from a Muslim state to involve Muslim forces in securing Iraq.

The Saudi plan, first proposed in July, envisioned organizing a force of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers from Muslim states to serve under UN control and help stabilize Iraq -- a task now mostly in U.S. hands.

The plan contains several unresolved questions. Among these are which countries would contribute troops and who would pay for the deployment.

Riyadh had earlier ruled out sending any of its own troops after the Iraqi government said it would not welcome troops from neighboring states for fear of potential political interference in Iraq's domestic affairs. Instead, the Saudis sought to interest countries outside the immediate region, including Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, and Pakistan.

The Saudi plan sought to rally support among Muslim states by stressing the troops would be under a command structure controlled by the UN. Riyadh also said any deployment of Muslim troops should be offset by comparable decreases in the number of coalition troops in Iraq.

Both of those conditions appeared to be a concession to widespread feeling in the Muslim world that the United States acted unilaterally in invading Iraq and without a specific UN resolution. Muslim governments have been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition over the past 18 months for fear of appearing to approve of Washington's military action.

The failure of the Saudi initiative could now spell the end to any immediate prospects of Muslim states taking part in securing Iraq.

Those prospects were already uncertain as many of the countries Riyadh initially mentioned as potential contributors to the Muslim force have hesitated to volunteer their troops.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf early on said Islamabad would send troops only if other Muslim countries decided to do so.

"In principal, Pakistan would like to help, if we can contribute to any peace and harmony [in] Iraq. But we need to look into the fact of whether the people of Iraq want us to come there, first of all," Musharraf said. "Then other Muslim countries [must] decide to join so that Pakistan is not the only country. And [then there is] the issue of [a] UN mandate and those arrangements when Pakistan accepts."

Indonesia said earlier this year that it would not support the idea unless it was under a UN framework.

Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi said two months ago the Saudi proposal would only be feasible if coalition troops withdrew first, so that Muslim soldiers would not be regarded as part of an occupying force.

Washington's rejection of the Saudi initiative comes after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell initially welcomed the initiative as a starting point for discussions earlier this year.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in July the United States would support the Saudi goal and maintain discussions on the matter.

But in rejecting the proposal yesterday, U.S. officials gave no indication of whether they or Iraqi officials would now launch alternative efforts to persuade Muslim states to contribute troops to the multinational force.

Shortly after Iraq's sovereign government took power in late May, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi sent letters to the governments of Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, and Pakistan formally requesting troop contributions.

Only two states with predominantly Muslim populations have so far contributed units to the U.S.-led coalition -- Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

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