HOUSTON — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said yesterday that his nation is prepared to train policemen — “as many as they can bring” — to secure Iraq’s major cities, but that U.S. forces should pull back from populated areas after a planned June 30 turnover of power.
The offer, which Mr. Mubarak said is supported by unnamed nations in the region, would mark the strongest effort to date by Arab leaders to help the U.S.-led coalition adhere to the transfer of sovereignty scheduled to take place in just 10 weeks.
It also comes at a time when U.S. commanders in Baghdad are re-examining their training programs after many Iraqi police failed to resist the takeover of their posts during attacks last week by a radical Shi’ite militia.
During a meeting with President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on Monday, Mr. Mubarak said he told the president, “I am ready to train you some police, more police, enough police before [June 30] to work in Baghdad and some big cities.”
During a later interview with The Washington Times in a Houston hotel, the Egyptian leader said, “We have May, June. We are ready to train the maximum number of policemen in our country in a very short period of time.”
Asked how many police Egypt could train in the time available, he said, “As many as they can bring.” In the 45-minute interview, Mr. Mubarak also:
Expressed confidence that the United States will be able to transfer authority to a new Iraqi government on June 30. “If we can prepare all these forces, I think it could happen.”
Demanded that Israel consult “on each step” with Palestinians as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moves forward with his unilateral plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
Offered to train Palestinian police to serve in Gaza after any such withdrawal.
Acknowledged, by gesture and laughter, that the world, and specifically the Middle East, is better off without Saddam Hussein. He acknowledged this was a touchy subject in the Arab world.
The Egyptian president’s offer to help train Iraqi police was welcomed yesterday by the White House.
“We view that as a very helpful offer,” said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the National Security Council. “The details will need to be worked out and we are working on that.”
Mr. Mubarak said in the interview that stability in Iraq can only be restored if the people there see that their security is in the hands of Iraqis and not a foreign occupation force.
“There should be a police, well trained, who will take over, any town or any place, and the foreign forces should pull out and stay far away, to give the impression to the people that you are being controlled by yourselves, by your police,” he said.
“Train the police, give them the mission, put them there and tell them, ‘Work independently, we are going to leave this area.’ … Test them.”
The Iraqi police force of more than 70,000 has failed to meet expectations and the Iraqi interior minister, handpicked by the United States to oversee the police force, resigned over the weekend after complaining about divided loyalties among the officers.
The force has been short of equipment and training since its inception, and some officers have recently been accused of targeting coalition forces, prompting U.S. officials to question whether an adequate screening process is in place.
Other nations, including France, Germany, Canada, Japan, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are either training police officers or have offered to do so.
Mr. Mubarak, the leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation, also weighed in on a proposal by Mr. Sharon to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, which will be put to a vote of his Likud Party.
Mr. Sharon is expected to receive a letter when he meets today at the White House with Mr. Bush that promises Israel will be permitted to retain portions of the West Bank in exchange for the pullout from Gaza.
But Mr. Mubarak said the Palestinians would never accept a division of the West Bank that did not result from negotiations.
“If we are looking for peace and stability between both sides, we have to consult on each step toward withdrawal. To keep some settlements without the acceptance of the Palestinians, this will never happen. Let us be realistic: If you want peace, if you want to live together in harmony, we have to consult with each other,” he said.
However, the Egyptian leader appeared pleased with a statement from Mr. Bush at their joint press conference Monday saying the Gaza withdrawal should be seen in the context of the U.S.-backed “road map,” a peace plan that would lead to a Palestinian state.
“I told [Mr. Bush] that the withdrawal from Gaza should be coordinated with the Palestinians, should be in consultation with the Palestinians for one single reason: so they can prepare themselves to have the power to control Gaza after that…. Otherwise it would be a big mistake. To just withdraw and leave everything would be very complicated.”
Mr. Mubarak said Egypt was ready to train Palestinians to serve in Gaza, “to give them instructions in how to work as police for the security … and to coordinate with them in how they can work in maintaining security against terror.”
But he bristled when asked what Egypt would do to halt the smuggling of weapons into Gaza from its territory, arguing that his government was already doing everything possible to seal the frontier.
Mr. Mubarak took pains to stress that Egypt had set out on a program of democratic reforms long before the United States began developing a new initiative on the subject, which is to be made public at a Group of Eight summit this summer.
“We started maybe seven or eight years ago, liberalizing the economy. We have an independent judicial system, we have a free press, we have free expression. We have been much more active than any other country on women’s rights, than any other country there [in the Arab League]. We have a council on that, we have a multiparty system. Maybe they are not so strong, but we have to accept them,” he said.
He also argued against trying to impose a single model for democracy on the region, saying it should be different for every culture.
“We cannot take the American example which is not like the British example, is not like the French example, is not like the German example or the Italian model of democracy. But the basis of democracy should be adopted: free press, independent judiciary system, parliament, multiparty system.”
While noting Egypt’s strong efforts over a period of years to fight its own Islamist terrorists, Mr. Mubarak avoided a question as to whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Mr. Sharon have the same definition of terrorism.
“Don’t open this issue, please. Some people may get offended by my ideas,” he said.
Asked whether the Middle East and Iraq are better off without Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, Mr. Mubarak, who smiled often throughout the interview as he answered questions in somewhat broken English, said:
“Better off? Now you’re asking me a difficult question.” His aides, who also attended the interview, laughed.
“This question makes me fail in the exam,” he said to more laughter before acknowledging: “Of course, such an element is not acceptable in the Arab world.”