A single, unified military force drawing troops from each Arab nation is needed to battle the spread of the Islamic State group, Nabil al-Arabi, the Arab League’s secretary-general, said on Monday.
“There is an urgent need for the creation of a multi-purpose common Arab military force… able to intervene rapidly to fight terrorism and the activities of terrorist groups,” Arabi told a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo.
There must also be greater intelligence coordination between Arab countries, he added.
The meeting also courted further international controversy as diplomats from Riyadh prevented Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, from addressing ministers.
“Last night, we were told that Saudi Arabia had blocked Margot’s participation,” said the foreign minister’s spokesman.
“The only explanation we’ve got is that this is because of the statements the Swedish government has made regarding human rights in Saudi Arabia.”
Ahmed Ben Helli, the Arab League’s deputy chief, told reporters last week that leaders of the 21-nation bloc were expected to focus on a common army at the League’s annual summit at the end of March in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Such a force was important as a “symbolic” show of deterrence at times of “conflict or disasters”, he said.
Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has also called for such a regional military alliance, saying it was needed to confront threats in a region where the Islamic State group holds swathes of Syria and Iraq and has gained a foothold in Egypt’s neighbour, Libya.
Egypt launched its own airstrikes against IS targets in Libya, where the group murdered 21 mainly Egyptian Coptic Christians last month. The retaliation was criticised by rights organisations.
“The incident is one in a string of horrific acts – some of which amount to war crimes – in recent weeks that show how civilians are increasingly bearing the brunt of reprisal attacks,” said Amnesty International.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has also faced heavy criticism over thousands of Egyptian labourers being stranded at the border with Libya as they fled, fearing retaliation for the airstrikes.
A number of Arab League members, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, are reportedly keen on supporting the idea of a shared military – an idea somewhat akin to an “Arab NATO”.
However, it was not clear when or where such a force would be formally established – or which countries would formally sign up.
Thus far there has been no comprehensive Arab force to fight the IS group, though several Arab nations have joined the US-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against IS in Syria and Iraq.