WASHINGTON – Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (search) says Muslim countries apparently are resisting a Saudi proposal to set up a Muslim force to bolster the U.S.-led coalition of troops in Iraq.
Armitage did not write off the Saudi initiative, which he described as a "genuine gesture" in an interview with Al-Hayat (search), a Saudi-owned newspaper based in London.
"Discussions will continue with those countries to see if they may be willing to," Armitage said Thursday. A text of the interview was released Friday by the State Department.
The Bush administration is eager to enlist Muslim countries in post-war operations in Iraq. It could have political and diplomatic dividends, providing an element of Muslim approval to the fight against insurgents and possibly leading to the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.
The Saudis have suggested that coalition forces would be withdrawn as Muslim troops take up positions in Iraq. Their primary job would be to protect U.N. officials, but they also could be used to help guard the borders against armed infiltrators.
There are some 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. More than 900 Americans have been killed since military operations began in March 2003. The American public is restive, and the U.S. role in Iraq has become a major issue in the presidential campaign.
Armitage said the Saudis were "really seeking a resolution of the problems of Iraq."
But, he said, "I don't see much willingness on the part of many of the governments of the region, or farther beyond, to send troops."
While Jordan has expressed some interest, the Saudis and the interim Iraqi government were concentrating on enlisting distant Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Armitage said King Mohammed VI (search) of Morocco was approached, but Morocco has decided "that's not the best use of its forces."
He confirmed there also was discussion with Pakistan and Bangladesh and more recently with some of the states of the former Soviet Union.
"These things are all in some stage or another of conversation," Armitage said.
Turning to two of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, Armitage said they should do more to stop militants from crossing the border into Iraq.
However, Armitage said foreign forces were only one of the elements in the insurgency. "The main element is former regime folks who are fighting," he said.
Armitage reiterated, meanwhile, the long-standing U.S. position that Syrian forces should quit Lebanon and permit the Lebanese to take charge of their country.
Criticizing Syria, the State Department official said, "I think they have not made any fundamental decisions to be a much more positive player in the region."