SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — A two-day Arab summit ended Sunday with a vow to defeat Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen and the formal unveiling of plans to form a joint Arab intervention force, setting the stage for a potentially dangerous clash between U.S.-allied Arab states and Tehran over influence in the region.
Arab leaders taking turns to address the gathering spoke repeatedly of the threat posed to the region's Arab identity by what they called moves by "foreign" or "outside parties" to stoke sectarian, ethnic or religious rivalries in Arab states — all thinly-veiled references to Iran, which has in recent years consolidated its hold in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and now Yemen.
The summit's final communique made similarly vague references, but the Arab League chief, Nabil Elaraby, was unequivocal during a news conference later, singling out Iran for what he said was its intervention "in many nations."
A summit resolution said the newly unveiled joint Arab defense force would be deployed at the request of any Arab nation facing a national security threat and that it would also be used to combat terrorist groups.
The agreement came as U.S. and other Western diplomats were pushing to meet a Tuesday deadline to reach a deal with Iran that would restrict its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf fear that a nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran will free Iran's hands to bolster its influence in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority. They believe the air campaign in Yemen and a joint Arab force would empower them to stand up to what they see as Iran's bullying. The United States has sought to offer reassurances that a nuclear deal does not mean that Washington will abandon them, but they remain skeptical.
The Houthis swept down from their northern strongholds last year and captured Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September. Embattled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally against a powerful local al-Qaida affiliate, first fled to the southern city of Aden before fleeing the country last week as the rebels closed in.
Speaking at the summit on Saturday, Hadi accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive, raising the specter of a regional conflict. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though both acknowledge the Islamic Republic is providing humanitarian and other aid.
On Sunday, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, said the Lebanese Hezbollah militia was also supporting the Houthis. The Saudi-led campaign, he said on NBC's "Meet the Press," is to protect Yemen's "legitimate government from a group that is allied and supported by Iran and Hezbollah."
A Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemeni military officials have said the campaign could pave the way for a possible ground invasion, a development that Egyptian military officials say would likely commence after the airstrikes significantly diminish the military capabilities of the Houthis and their allies.
Yemen's foreign minister, Riad Yassin, said the air campaign, code-named Operation Decisive Storm, had prevented the rebels from using the weaponry they seized to attack Yemeni cities or to target neighboring Saudi Arabia with missiles. It also stopped Iran's supply line to the rebels, he told a news conference Sunday.
Military experts will decide when and if a ground operation is needed, Yassin said. "This is a comprehensive operation and (any ground offensive) will depend on the calculations of the military," he said.
Iran has condemned the airstrikes against its Yemeni allies but so far has not responded with military action, though diplomatic and military officials said Iranian retaliation could not be ruled out.
"Iran for the first time in a very long time is basically seeing a counterattack. The Iranians were not expecting that Gulf monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, would be so bold as to confront this head on," one Gulf official said.
The Saudi-led airstrikes "tore to pieces their game plan with regard to the Houthis, and they are not going to accept that," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
At the summit's closing session, Elaraby said the Saudi-led air campaign would continue until all Houthi militias "withdraw and surrender their weapons," and a strong unified Yemen returns.
"Yemen was on the brink of the abyss, requiring effective Arab and international moves after all means of reaching a peaceful resolution had been exhausted to end the Houthi coup and restore legitimacy," Elaraby said, reading from the final communique.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said the leaders from 22 nations also agreed to create a joint Arab military force whose structure and operational mechanism will be worked out by a high-level panel under the supervision of Arab chiefs of staff.
Elaraby said the chiefs of staff would meet within a month and would have an additional three months to work out the details before presenting their proposal to a meeting of the Arab League's Joint Defense Council. Preparations for the force will be under the auspices of Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco — the former, present and next chairs of the Arab League.
"It is an important resolution given all the unprecedented unrest and threats endured by the Arab world," Elaraby said.
"There is a political will to create this force and not to leave its creation without a firm time frame," Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told a news conference.
The Egyptian military and security officials have said the proposed force would consist of up to 40,000 elite troops backed by jet fighters, warships and light armor and would be headquartered in either Cairo or Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
However, it is unlikely that all 22 member nations of the often-fractious Arab League will join the proposed force. Creation of such a force has been a longtime goal that has eluded Arab nations in the 65 years since they signed a rarely used joint defense agreement.
Iraq, whose Shiite government is closely allied with non-Arab and Shiite Iran, has said more time is needed to discuss the proposed force.
Now in its fourth day, the Saudi-led air campaign has pushed Houthi rebels out of contested air bases, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri told reporters. Airstrikes hit Houthi targets throughout Sunday, including air defenses, ammunition depots, and heavy weapons and vehicles the rebels had taken from government forces.
"The coalition operations in the coming days will increase pressure on the Houthi militias by targeting them. Whether it's individual or group movement, there will no longer be any safe place in Yemen for the Houthi militias," he told a news conference in Riyadh.
On Saturday, he said the strikes had targeted Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads "devastated," though he warned that the rebels could have more missiles.
Meanwhile, Pakistan dispatched a plane Sunday to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, to try to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan's prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen's airports allowed them. Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also tweeted Sunday: "We are doing everything to evacuate our people from Yemen at the earliest by all routes — land, sea and air."
Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.