Saudi Arabia has become the latest Middle East state to offer military support for an international peacekeeping force for Iraq. The plan was raised in talks in Riyadh on 29 July by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was on the first leg of a tour intended to bolster support for an army drawn exclusively from Muslim countries. The US has also been attempting to re-inject some enthusiasm into its European military allies, concerned that support for the coalition presence in Iraq has waned since the June handover.
Powell is due to meet his Hungarian counterpart Laszlo Kovacs, a strong supporter of the US-led war. US President Bush in mid-July praised Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy as a 'strong ally'. Hungary's 300 troops are based at Hilla, south of Baghdad, under Polish command. By contrast, Powell harshly criticised The Philippines on 22 July for withdrawing its troops from Iraq to save a hostage. 'In effect, kidnappers were rewarded for kidnapping,' Powell said. The talks in Riyadh took place on one of the worst days of violence in Iraq since the handover of sovereignty. More than 100 people were killed, the majority - at least 68 - in a suicide bombing in Baquba, to the northeast of Baghdad. According to witnesses, the bomber drove his vehicle into a crowded market area as people were queuing to join the police. There have also been violent clashes, especially in the northern, ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk, in the run-up to a three-day meeting to decide on the appointment of an advisory assembly to oversee the work of the interim government. Disputes flared early on over the choice of the 1,000 Iraqi delegates due to attend the 31 July meeting. The 100-member assembly will have the power to approve the national budget, name replacements to the cabinet in the event of a resignation and block moves by the prime minister with a two-thirds majority. It has not been decided under what jurisdiction, and on what authority, a multinational peacekeeping force would be deployed in Iraq. However, Baghdad on 21 July said it had reached agreement with its neighbouring states to establish a mechanism to fight militant groups in the country. Foreign affairs ministers from Iraq, its six neighbours and Egypt approved the plan at a Cairo meeting, after expressing concern over Iraq's security situation and reaffirming the 'need to eliminate all terrorist and other armed groups'. A joint statement condemned 'all terrorist acts against civilians, governmental, humanitarian and religious institutions' in Iraq. Baghdad is pressuring Syria and Iran to secure their borders to stop foreign fighters entering Iraq. The meeting coincided with a visit to Cairo by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, during which Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif offered to provide training to Iraqi security forces.