Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday proposed sending a Muslim peacekeeping force to Iraq. Musharraf has suggested his own country would send thousands of troops to join the effort, should such a plan come together.
He made the proposal at a conference of foreign ministers from Islamic countries Tuesday, following months of reports that Pakistan was lobbying for an Islamic military force to ease the burden of the U.S. military fighting against a deadly Iraqi insurgency.
Arab diplomats familiar with the Pakistani proposal tell CBS News that Pakistan is keen to build up a role for itself in the Iraq effort, by way of contributing largely to such a man-power effort. The diplomats suggest Musharraf sees the force as a way to forge closer relations with the U.S.
Musharraf and President Bush are already close allies in the U.S.-led war on terror. But Gen. Musharraf faces mounting protests at home from Pakistan's opposition political parties, while the Democrats who control Congress have increasingly questioned America's huge economical support to the south Asian country.
"The mass killing that is taking place (in Iraq), the carnage that is taking place there, has to stop. If all the warring factions — different factions in Iraq — if they accept, then maybe a Muslim peacekeeping force under the United Nations umbrella could be looked at", said Musharraf in his opening speech to the conference.
"We have to stop all outside interference in Iraq. The carnage that is taking place there has to stop, and if outside interference stops, I think internal control would be possible," Musharraf said.
Over the next two days, the foreign ministers who have gathered in Islamabad for the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) will discuss ways of revitalizing their group, a senior Arab diplomat attending the conference said. But he agreed that Pakistan, being the host of the event, was well placed to push for a multinational Islamic force for Iraq.
"It's impossible to say how far this idea will go. This is a complex issue," said one Arab diplomat, who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity. A key difficulty for such a contingent would be negotiating the deep divide and bitter resentment between Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population and its minority Sunnis.
Pakistan's majority population is Sunni. Other countries that Pakistan has quietly been in touch with on the subject, including Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia, are also largely Sunni countries. The world's only predominantly Shiite country, other than Iraq, is Iran.
Diplomats said it was unlikely the U.S. would accept a role for any members of the Iranian military in a future peacekeeping effort, despite recent reports of behind the scenes contacts between U.S. and Iranian officials.
"An Iranian army in Iraq for peacekeeping purposes is not something the U.S. will accept under the circumstances," said one senior western diplomat in Islamabad.
Farhan Bokhari has been covering southeast Asia for several large European news organizations for 16 years. Based in Islamabad, his focus is security issues, in particular al Qaeda and the regional aspects of the global fight against terrorism.
By Farhan Bokhari