Iraq PM calls for help from Muslim and Arab forces

Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, joined calls yesterday for the creation of a Muslim force to help bring stability to Iraq, saying it was time Islamic and Arab nations combine to crush the continuing insurgency.

"This is a global war," Mr Allawi told a press conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, sharing the podium with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. "These are forces of evil who are acting against us. I call upon the leaders of Islamic countries and Arab countries to close ranks."

But a militant group last night threatened any Islamic or Arab nation which contributes troops. "Our swords will be drawn in the face of anyone who co-operates with the Jews and the Christians," the group said in its statement, posted on the internet. It was issued in the name of the Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Islamiya Omar el-Mukhtar Brigade, a little known group. The plan for a Muslim force was officially tabled yesterday by the Saudi government but is supported behind the scenes by the US, which continues to search for ways to bolster the Allied forces in Iraq. It would be a big diplomatic coup for Washington if Islamic countries agree.

The proposal calls for the formation of a force of soldiers from Islamic countries, with the exception of those neighbouring Iraq. Countries expected to help would include Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Bangladesh and Morocco. No Arab countries are among the US-led allies in Iraq. Most Arab countries remain reluctant to commit soldiers to Iraq because of the American military domination. Persuading any of them to commit to a new force will not be easy. Pakistani officials said its government has been considering the proposal but no decision is yet possible.

President Pervez Musharraf is fighting domestic disapproval of his support for the US war on terror. Agreement to deploy troops to Iraq would make his political position harder still. The atmosphere in Pakistan has turned sour since the filmed murders of two Pakistanis ­ migrant workers employed by an Arab company doing work for a US firm ­ in Iraq this week.

"Those who have committed this crime have caused the greatest harm both to humanity and Islam," President Musharraf and Prime Minister Chaudry Shujaat Hussain said in a joint statement. As anger over the killings grew in Pakistan, some suggested the kidnappers might have been persuaded to release the men if the government had stated that it would not send troops to Iraq. Mr Powell, who has been on a week-long tour of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, suggested the Islamic force could protect UN personnel in Iraq to help organise elections. He conceded that Saudi Arabia envisaged setting conditions on "chain-of-command arrangements" and on "what the troops would be doing". He added: "There are many questions that have to be answered, but we do welcome the Saudi initiative." The quick endorsement from Mr Allawi could prove crucial in keeping it alive. "Securing Iraq is really securing the region," the Prime Minster said, and Islamic states "must stand as one group against those gangs, against those terrorists and those criminals".

Many Arab governments have long insisted they would not contemplate assisting in Iraq without an explicit invitation from a sovereign Iraqi government and without it being part of a United Nations framework. Mr Powell tried to suggest those conditions could now be met in Iraq. "They now have a sovereign government that is up and running," he 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." He also noted that a UN resolution passed in June supported the initiative.

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