Monday, October 18, 2004

Global Jihad: Missed Opportunity - Muslim Forces in Iraq


Diplomats said Annan accepted the plan. But the Bush administration objected because the special force would have been controlled by the UN instead of by U.S. military officers who run the Multi-National Force in Iraq. Muslim and Arab countries refused to work under U.S. command, and the initiative died in early September. The White House confirmed Friday that U.S. military commanders raised objections because the Muslim troops would not have been under their control. "It was a serious issue for commanders of the Multi-National Force," said a White House spokesman who refused to be identified by name.Of the 160,000 coalition troops in Iraq, about 135,000 are Americans. Britain has the second largest contingent, with about 9,000 soldiers. The rest come from 28 other countries, none of them Muslim.
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Muslim force nixed
Bush said no to plan to send Muslim peacekeepers to Iraq to help UN organize elections

MOHAMAD BAZZI

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- President George W. Bush rebuffed a plan last month for a Muslim peacekeeping force that would have helped the United Nations organize elections in Iraq, according to Saudi and Iraqi officials.

As a result, the UN continues to have a skeletal presence in Iraq, with only four staff members working full time on preparing for elections set for the end of January. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has refused to establish a new UN headquarters in Baghdad unless countries commit troops for a special force to protect it.

Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Abdullah, personally lobbied Bush in July to sign off on the plan to establish a contingent of several hundred troops from Arab and Muslim nations. Abdullah discussed the plan in a 10-minute phone conversation with Bush on July 28 after meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to Saudi officials familiar with the negotiations.

Diplomats said Annan accepted the plan. But the Bush administration objected because the special force would have been controlled by the UN instead of by U.S. military officers who run the Multi-National Force in Iraq. Muslim and Arab countries refused to work under U.S. command, and the initiative died in early September.

"Muslim countries that were willing to provide troops were not willing to put them under the command of the U.S.-led coalition," said a senior Iraqi security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "In many of these nations, there was too much domestic pressure for the governments to justify putting their troops under U.S. control."

The White House confirmed Friday that U.S. military commanders raised objections because the Muslim troops would not have been under their control. "It was a serious issue for commanders of the Multi-National Force," said a White House spokesman who refused to be identified by name.

The spokesman said the primary reason for the plan's failure was opposition from the Iraqi government, which did not want troops from neighboring countries to be deployed inside Iraq.

But Iraqi officials already had worked out a deal with the Saudis ruling out the involvement of any country that borders Iraq. In early July, the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, sent letters formally requesting troops to about a dozen Arab and Muslim nations. Allawi also visited several countries in July and August to personally plead with their leaders to send troops.

The episode raises doubts about the Bush administration's repeated assertions that proper elections can be held in Iraq by January and that it is eager to have other countries send troops to Iraq to ease the burden on American forces. The U.S.-led coalition has been losing members since the insurgency intensified in April. Five countries -- Spain, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines -- have pulled out their troops, about 2,200 total.

At least two other countries plan to withdraw their forces earlier than scheduled. While the pullouts have had little military impact, they have embarrassed the Bush administration during an election year.

Missed opportunity

"This was a missed opportunity for the United States to have other nations share the burden in Iraq," said a Saudi official who asked not to be named.

Of the 160,000 coalition troops in Iraq, about 135,000 are Americans. Britain has the second largest contingent, with about 9,000 soldiers. The rest come from 28 other countries, none of them Muslim.

Saudi Arabia began recruiting Arab and Muslim countries to send troops to Baghdad in early July, soon after an interim Iraqi government took political power from the U.S.-led occupation authority. By late July, Abdullah had presented the initiative to Annan, Bush and Powell.

After meeting with Abdullah on July 28 in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, Powell called it "an interesting idea, a welcome idea." At that point, no countries had signed on to send troops, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Algeria and Morocco were "seriously interested," the Saudi official said. Saudi diplomats also had presented the idea to officials in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Oman.

Initially, the Saudis pressed to create a full-fledged peacekeeping force, possibly made up of several thousand Muslim troops. That force would have protected the UN mission and worked alongside Iraqi forces in other security functions. The Saudi official said Pakistan, which has one of the largest and most experienced armies in the Muslim world, was willing to commit several hundred soldiers to help start the process. But Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf insisted that other countries must commit forces before he would give final approval.

Iraqi officials said they did not want countries that border Iraq to contribute to a security force, ruling out Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Iran and Turkey. The Saudis agreed with that condition and promised to provide financial support to the peacekeeping force and possibly to some of the nations that agreed to contribute troops.

Questions of control

From the beginning, the main stumbling block was the issue of command and control. Muslim countries did not want to put their forces under U.S. command because of domestic pressures. The Saudis proposed that the new force work under direct UN control. But the United States and the Iraqi government balked.

"We thought that there was no system in place to allow a separate UN command structure," said the Iraqi official.

After meeting with Saudi and Iraqi leaders in late July, Powell hinted that a compromise could be reached. "The questions that we are looking at have to do with the nature of the proposal in order to garner the support of Muslim nations and populations there. The Saudis thought it would be appropriate to make a separate reporting chain up to the UN officials," Powell said after visiting Saudi Arabia. "It's just one of the things that we are looking at to see if there is a way to work around that."

At one point, the Saudis proposed that Muslim forces be placed under the command of the Iraqi government. That idea won over Allawi, but not the United States. "The Americans wanted ultimate control, and that made it impossible to make this work," said the Iraqi official.

When U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, many Arab and Muslim regimes were caught between pressure to back the United States and domestic anger over the occupation of a storied Islamic land. After the United States handed political sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28, regional power brokers such as Saudi Arabia hoped that Muslim governments would become more directly involved in improving security and rebuilding Iraq.

But Arab and Muslim masses largely support the Iraqi insurgency and are suspicious of Allawi's government because of his ties to the CIA and British intelligence. Islamic militants operating in Iraq are also likely to view troops from Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria as appealing targets because they come from countries that have cracked down on militants in recent years.

One way around the public backlash, Saudi diplomats argued, was to make clear that the Muslim peacekeepers would be focused solely on protecting the UN. "Kofi Annan's request for a special force presented an opportunity to involve the Islamic world," said the Saudi official.

The UN sent about 600 international staff members to Iraq soon after the U.S. invasion. But Annan ordered all staff members to leave in August 2003 after a car bombing destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. An investigating commission sharply criticized Annan and other officials for allowing lax security and ignoring threats against UN offices in Iraq.

Caution since deadly attack

Since the bombing, Annan has been very cautious in deploying UN staff members to Iraq. Some diplomats say that has jeopardized important projects in Iraq, especially the preparations for national elections.

"There is tremendous pressure on Annan from staff groups and some of his deputies to ensure maximum security, even though the situation in Iraq is dangerous for everyone," said an Arab diplomat at the UN. "This has created a kind of paralysis for UN efforts."

When he first arrived in Baghdad in July, newly appointed UN envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi said security was "the first priority, the second priority and the third priority." Today, Qazi is working with a staff of 35 to 40 people whose movement is very limited and who must rely on U.S. forces for protection.

For the Saudi official, the UN's limited presence in Iraq is a missed opportunity. "If our peacekeeping initiative had been adopted," he said, "the UN would have a much more active role in Iraq today."

Washington Bureau Chief Timothy M. Phelps contributed to this story.


Newsday 18/10/2004