Joined by Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) urged Muslim nations on Thursday to dispatch troops to Iraq to help defeat an insurgency that he said threatens all Islamic countries.
Allawi made the appeal a day after Saudi officials disclosed that they had initiated an effort to encourage the creation of a Muslim security force to help bring stability to Iraq.
"The leaders of this region must unify and must stand as one group against those gangs, against those terrorists and those criminals who are threatening and causing a great deal of harm to the Arab World and the Islamic world," Allawi said.
It was apparent that many questions about the force remain unanswered, including its size and the type of tasks the force would be asked to fulfill. Nor is it clear whether Muslim countries would go along with the idea. Another issue is how such a force would relate to the existing U.S.-led coalition.
Powell, who met with Allawi in this breezy port city, said he did not know whether the proposed force would complement the coalition or would be a one-for-one substitution. The number of Muslim troops in the coalition is believed to be scant.
Meanwhile, a top Pakistani leader has met with Saudi officials to discuss a possible Muslim military force for Iraq, and Yemen and Bahrain have offered help under certain conditions.
But while Arab governments and other Muslim countries say they want to help restore calm in Iraq — and have an interest in ensuring violence there does not destabilize the region — they must move carefully to avoid angering their citizens, many of whom are hostile toward the United States and Iraq's U.S.-backed government.
In fact, a militant group posted Internet warning that threatens attacks against any Islamic or Arab nation that contributes troops to a Saudi-proposed Muslim force for Iraq. "Our swords will be drawn in the face of anyone who cooperates with the Jews and the Christians," the group said in its statement. The statement was issued in the name of the Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Islamiya — Omar el-Mukhtar Brigade (search), a little known group whose main title means the Group of Islamic Monotheism.
With U.S. casualties still running high 15 months after the formal end to hostilities, the United States would enthusiastically welcome any initiative that would permit a reduction in the U.S. deployment in Iraq without jeopardizing the country's security.
Since the beginning of U.S. military operations in Iraq, more than 900 U.S. servicemen and women stationed there have died. In addition, a wave of kidnappings is continuing. Twenty-two truck drivers have been taken hostage by insurgents determined to hinder reconstruction and drive out coalition forces.
"We must confront them. We look forward to the contribution from the Arab and Islamic states," Allawi said
In London, an Arab League official, Ali Hamid, said any such force would only be acceptable if ordered by the U.N. Security Council and linked to a specific timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
"A solution with the help of the international community is a good idea provided that the Americans declare they are going to withdraw and not involve NATO in Iraqi affairs," Hamid said. NATO is weighing a plan to train Iraqi troops.
Allawi said that if the insurgents prevail, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon would not be safe.
Under the Saudi proposal, Arab and Muslim countries that do not border on Iraq would be invited to contribute. Iraq believes involvement by its immediate neighbors in the country's security could ultimately lead to political conflicts with them.
Powell welcomed the Saudi initiative and said the time may be ripe for a more active role by Arab and Muslim countries based on the handover of sovereignty to Allawi, along with the approval of a U.N. Security Council resolution that gives legitimacy to his interim government.
"They now have a sovereign government that is up and running," Powell said. "Based on that, there will be more intensive discussions on the basis of the Saudi initiative to see if more countries are willing to provide support."
Later, Powell flew to Kuwait, the fourth stop of a weeklong tour of Central Europe and the Middle East.
He told reporters in Kuwait that the Saudis are trying to shape their proposal in a way that garners maximum support from Arab and Muslim populations. Consistent with that goal, he said, Allawi has sent letters to leaders from these countries inviting them to dispatch forces to Iraq.
Powell seemed to take in stride an Iraqi decision to postpone by two weeks the convening of a national conference of a broad cross section of Iraqis. The conference has been billed as an integral part of Iraq's democratic development.
The decision to delay, he said, "was a function of whether they actually were ready for it. Over the last several days, it started to look like it's better to do it right than in haste."