On a flight from Washington to Bahrain, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States is trying to find countries to provide troops to protect the UN mission that is supposed to organise the elections in Iraq.

Rumsfeld flew to Bahrain on Saturday for an unannounced meeting aboard a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf to review the situation in Iraq with defence ministers from 18 countries, most of them with troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Whether the United States sends more troops to Iraq, as it has for elections in Afghanistan, "is up to General [John] Abizaid and General [George] Casey," Rumsfeld said, referring to the US commanders in charge of Iraq.

Rumsfeld added that about 140,000 Iraqi security forces should be trained and equipped by the elections.

He would not say whether he planned to make a pitch for more troops to the defence ministers during a day-long meeting aboard the USS John F Kennedy.

A senior defence official travelling with Rumsfeld described it as "a team-building, coalition-building event," intended to show US appreciation for their support and to reassure them about the situation in Iraq.

"These are people who put their troops on the line. [Rumsfeld] wants to thank them for that and share his thoughts, and have them hear the multinational commander give them strategy update via VTC (video teleconference)," he said.

Changing plans

The surge of violence in Iraq has undercut political support in some countries for keeping troops in Iraq.

The countries expected to participate were mainly former Soviet republics or recent Nato members from former East Bloc states, plus defence ministers or officials from Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar and Denmark.

Casey, the US commander in Iraq, was to brief the ministers on the strategy for pacifying the country in a video teleconference from Iraq, officials said.

With the Iraqis and the US embassy in Baghdad, Casey has devised an integrated plan to retake Iraqi resistance controlled areas, by the elections, either through negotiations or by military force, the New York Times reported on Friday.

Asked about the plan, Rumsfeld would neither confirm nor deny it, saying only, "Obviously we have plans. We have plans for lots of things."

"The goal is to assess the situation on the ground, and it's not static, it's changing, and to recognise the reality is different in different parts of the country at different times, and to continue to fashion plans that address the real world," he said.