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Arab leaders agree joint military force

Arab leaders have agreed to form a joint military force, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced Sunday on the second and final day of the 26th Arab summit.

“The Arab leaders had decided to agree on the principle of a joint Arab military force,” Sisi said in a speech at the gathering in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Arab representatives would meet to study the creation of the force, said Sisi.

The decision was mostly aimed at fighting militants who have overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria and won a foothold in Libya, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said ahead of the summit.

On Sunday, Arabi told the meeting that the region was threatened by a “destructive” force that threatened “ethnic and religious diversity,” in an apparent reference to the Islamic State group.

Egypt had pushed for the creation of the rapid response force to fight militants, and the matter gained urgency this week after Saudi Arabia and Arab allies launched air strikes on rebels in Yemen.

The summit’s communique also calls on Houthi fighters, who have made rapid advances in Yemen, to leave that country’s capital and hand over their arms to “legitimate” authorities.

Working out the mechanism and logistics of the unified force, an idea floated by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, could take months. Previous similar schemes have failed to produce tangible results in the divided Arab world.

The military force is voluntary, meaning no state would be required to take part.

That may give Arab states the flexibility needed for intervention in countries such as Yemen, where Saudi Arabia patched together a 10-nation Arab coalition against Houthi fighters and launched military strikes on Thursday.

The dangers facing the region are stark. While conflicts intensify in Yemen and Libya, the civil war in Syria is entering its fifth year.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state, faces an Islamist insurgency.

The Saudi-led operation in Yemen has underlined the rivalry between the predominantly Sunni kingdom and Shia Iran and it could inflame sectarian proxy wars that have spread in the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Chaos in Libya may be one key test for the unified force if it intervenes in a country with factions allied to two governments, vying for control of territory and oil facilities.

Sisi has repeatedly called for concerted Arab and Western action against what he sees as an existential threat posed by militant groups operating in Libya and elsewhere.

He ordered air strikes against Islamic State militants in Libya after the ultra-hardline Sunni group beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians in the chaotic neighboring country.

Arab leaders will call for the United Nations to lift an international arms embargo on Libya, which says the move is needed to prevent Islamic State from advancing.

But Qatar, accused by the Libyan government of supporting armed groups opposed to internationally-recognized authorities, expressed reservations, according to a draft communique.

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