Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search) said Thursday that Islamic countries must close ranks against "those gangs, those terrorists and those criminals" who he said are threatening the Arab world.

With Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) standing at his side, Allawi voiced support for a Saudi-led initiative under which Muslim countries would contribute to the creation of a new force that would help bring stability to Iraq.

"The leaders of this region must unify and must stand as one group," Allawi told a news conference.

He said that if the 15-month old insurgency in Iraq prevails, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon would not be safe.

Allawi spoke a day after a militia attack 35 miles outside of Baghdad killed 68 Iraqis and wounded 56. It was the deadliest attack since Allawi took office a month ago from a U.S. governing authority.

Under the Saudi proposal, Arab and Muslim countries which do not border on Iraq would be invited to contribute. Iraq believes involvement by its neighbors in the country's security could ultimately lead to political conflicts with them.

"We look forward to the contribution of the Arab and the Islamic states with the exception of the neighboring states," Allawi said.

The Muslim contribution to the U.S. -led coalition in Iraq, with 160,000 troops, has been scant.

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."

Powell said the degree to which a Muslim force would offset the coalition force was not clear.

He is on the third leg of a weeklong trip to Central Europe and the Middle East. He leaves for Kuwait Thursday afternoon.

Saudi officials said the kingdom is normalizing relations with Iraq for the first time since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Some of the countries mentioned as possible participants in a security force — Malaysia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Morocco — are from far outside the region. Pakistan is among the many countries that Iraqi officials have contacted in recent weeks.

Allawi has discussed the issue during an ongoing tour of Arab countries.

The Arab League has been reluctant to confer legitimacy on the interim Iraq government because of the continuing U.S. troop deployment.

League spokesman Hossam Zaki said Wednesday the organization's general stand was that any request for troops "should come from a legitimate Iraqi government, the force should not be part of the occupation of Iraq and should be authorized by a U.N. Security Council resolution and under U.N. leadership."

Zaki indicated the league could not stop individual member states from sending troops to Iraq. He said members had reacted in different ways to the interim government's call for troops.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official with the 22-nation League, based in Cairo, said Thursday it is too early to comment on the Saudi initiative because the League hasn't yet been informed of it.

In Islamabad, a senior Pakistani official told The Associated Press on Thursday that Pakistani Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain discussed the possibility of creating such a force during a visit to Saudi Arabia last week.

In Jakarta, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said Thursday, "Our position remains that any possible Indonesian involvement, including dispatching our military personnel to Iraq, has to be within and under a U.N. framework."

No Arab country is now a coalition participant and the numbers of Muslims in the coalition is believed to be scant. Politically, it would be far easier for Muslim countries to commit themselves as a group rather than individually.

American and Iraqi efforts to lure new members into the coalition have not borne fruit. Indeed, Powell has exhorted coalition members to remain steadfast in their troop commitments to Iraq.

The coalition membership has shrunk from 36 to 31 in recent weeks. Militants in Iraq kidnapped foreigners and committed other violent acts to force coalition members to abandon Iraq.