Ministers from the 22-nation Arab League, began on Saturday three days of talks conducted in extraordinary secrecy.

Delegates were not even allowed to use paper in their presentations out of fear the documents might make their way to the news media.

Only ministers were allowed to participate in most meetings to prevent their aides from leaking details. 

The ministers were to discuss a Yemeni initiative that calls for US-led forces in Iraq to be replaced by a multinational force under UN oversight. 

Forces to Iraq

Hisham Yusuf, an Arab League official, indicated delegates were not ruling out committing Arab forces to Iraq, but that they would need to clarify command structures before that could happen. 

"To send forces, you need a legal reference ... a (UN) Security Council resolution" to determine the command structure, he told The Associated Press. 

Arab leaders expected to discuss
Israeli occupation of Palestine

The Yemeni initiative also seeks an Iraqi meeting, held under UN and Arab League auspices, on writing an Iraqi constitution and laying out the framework of a new Iraqi government. UN officials have proposed a similar idea. 

A diplomat who attended a session on Iraq said the Iraqi delegation did not want to discuss the Yemeni proposal, instead suggesting that decisions taken at an earlier meeting of foreign ministers be respected. 

At that meeting in Tunisia in March, the ministers agreed to help Iraq assume sovereignty without meddling in its affairs. They also agreed to condemn "terrorist acts" targeting civilians. 

The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi delegation accepted only a reference to the prisoner-abuse scandal, which the ministers were expected to condemn. 

The Yemeni initiative

The Yemeni initiative repeats Arab calls for a UN Security Council resolution to commit Israel to end violence, but it also seeks a Palestinian commitment to "end all forms of armed resistance" - which would be a dramatic change of course for Arab nations.

Such a call is unlikely to survive into any final Arab document. 

"The latest developments in the region have increased the challenge and the need for finding an Arab position on the level of the ministers that answers all the questions posed and answers Arab demands"

Jean Ubaid,
Lebanese Foreign Minister

It also calls for Arab states and Israel to recognise each other and begin a comprehensive process of normalising relations -a process it says should go hand in hand with nuclear disarmament. That point draws on ideas of a 2002 Saudi-authored Arab initiative. 

Disagreements among ministers on the question of peace efforts with Israel and the reforms issue in a similar preliminary meeting in Tunisia led to a surprise announcement by the host country, Tunisia, that the meeting would be postponed. The cancellation came only hours before the meeting was to begin. 

Regional situation

Tunisia has said the new meeting may be convened on 22-23 May, but insists a consensus first be reached on the agenda. The situation in the region, however, has been further shaken since the original annual Arab summit fell apart in March. 

Since then, there has been a second Israeli assassination of a Gaza leader of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

There has also been a US policy shift giving Israel unprecedented backing on issues of refugees and settlements, an upsurge of violence in Iraq and a prisoner abuse scandal in a US-run Iraqi prison and attacks in Saudi Arabia. 

"The latest developments in the region have increased the challenge and the need for finding an Arab position on the level of the ministers that answers all the questions posed and answers Arab demands," Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Ubaid said on arriving in Cairo late on Friday.