CAIRO - US Arab allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are discussing the creation of a military pact to take on Islamic militants, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East, The Associated Press has learned.
The alliance would also serve as a show of strength to counterbalance their traditional rival, Shiite-dominated, Iran. Two countries are seen as potential theaters for the alliance to act, senior Egyptian military officials said: Libya, where Islamic militants have taken over several cities, and Yemen, where Shiite rebels suspected of links to Iran have seized control of the capital.
The discussions reflect a new assertiveness among the Middle East's Sunni powerhouses, whose governments - after three years of post-Arab Spring turmoil in the region - have increasingly come to see Sunni Islamic militants and Islamist political movements as a threat.
Their consideration of a joint force illustrates a desire to go beyond the international coalition that the United States has put together to wage an air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated in those strikes in Syria. The officials said the alliance under consideration was not intended to intervene in Iraq or Syria but to act separately to address other extremist hotspots.
Three military officials discussed details of the talks and a fourth confirmed their comments.
A Gulf official, who is aware of the discussions, told The Associated Press that the governments were coordinating on how to deal with Libya, and the talks were "ongoing on wider cooperation on how to deal with extremists in the region." He and the Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks remain secret.
Talks on an alliance against extremists are well advanced, the officials said. But the further idea of forming a joint force is more distant, and there are differences among the countries over the size of any force, funding and headquarters, and over whether to seek Arab League or UN political cover for operations, one of the Egyptian officials said. Past attempts at a pan-Arab military force have fallen apart.
Still, even if no joint force is agreed on, the alliance would coordinate military action, aiming at quick, pinpoint operations against militants rather than longer missions, the officials said.
The countries have already shown an unprecedented willingness to intervene together. Egypt and the UAE cooperated in carrying out airstrikes against Islamic militants in Libya during the summer, according to US and Egyptian officials, and last month Egypt carried out strikes of its own. Egypt's government denied the reports both times.
Egypt's president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, has warned repeatedly that Islamic extremists must be dealt with in multiple places, not just in Iraq and Syria. In a September interview with the AP, he said "a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the region" is needed.
In Washington, asked if the US was aware of the discussions, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said, "We're not privy to that. I wouldn't speak to it." He would not elaborate.
The spokesman for Egypt's presidency, Alaa Youssef, denied that creating a joint rapid deployment force, complete with a headquarters, was part of the "routine" discussions between Egypt and its Arab allies on a strategy to combat extremism.
The Egyptian military officials said top generals from the countries - including at time, their chiefs of staff - have held multiple rounds of talks. Two of the Egyptian officials have participated in the discussions and the two others have been briefed on them.
Under consideration, they said, is the establishment of a core force made up of elite troops with aircraft and access to a pool of intelligence gathered by members of the alliance, they said.
To prepare for such a force, bilateral and multilateral war games have been held over the past year among the countries to promote harmony among their troops and weapons systems. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have elite counter-terrorism units, and the Gulf countries have sophisticated air forces, largely purchased from the United States.
The officials said Jordan and Algeria had also been approached to join.
"It will only be announced when it is ready to go and we have an agreement on everything," said the most senior of the four Egyptian officials.
The officials said the countries involved intend to get a "nod" of approval from the United States. But, they said, the idea of a joint force reflected skepticism among the countries that Washington is prepared to pursue militants beyond the anti-Islamic State group operation.
In Libya, Islamic militants have controlled the capital, Tripoli, and the second-largest city, Benghazi, for the past two months. Islamist politicians in Tripoli have set up their own government and revived the previous parliament, where they held a majority.
The internationally recognized and most recently elected parliament and government have been relegated to the small city of Tobrouk near the Egyptian border, while its allied militias and army forces under Gen. Khalifa Hifter battle the militants. Al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia have backed for the Tabrouk government.
In Yemen, al-Qaeda has one of its most active branches, fighting the government for years. Also, Shiite rebels known as the Houthis overran the capital Sanaa in September, threatening the rule of Gulf-backed President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia intervened to fight the Houthis previously, in 2010, believing that the movement is a proxy for Iran.
The alliance would also be on hand to protect the Gulf from any incursions by the Islamic State group, the officials said. Its existence would also be a symbolic show of unity against Iranian influence.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular have a close bond under al-Sisi. As army commander, el-Sissi overthrew Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who was democratically elected after the upheaval of the Arab Spring uprisings. Al-Sisi has since waged a ferocious crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE also see as their enemy.
Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait have provided some $20 billion in aid to Egypt since al-Sisi's ouster of Morsi.
Al-Sisi repeatedly referred to the security of his Gulf Arab allies as a "red line" and integral to Egypt's own security, hinting he would be willing to send troops. Shortly before he left the military to run for president this year, he inaugurated an elite rapid deployment force and later cryptically said that the Gulf region was "only a short distance away" from Egypt.