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Ahmadinejad, Saudi king reject sectarian strife

March 4, 2007

Ahmadinejad, Saudi king reject sectarian strife

By Souhail Karam

RIYADH (Reuters) - Sunni and Shi'ite heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed on Saturday to fight the spread of sectarian strife that threatens to spill over from their neighbour Iraq, the Saudi foreign minister said. 

Saudi King Abdullah held talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was on his first official trip to Saudi Arabia. A Saudi official said earlier the kingdom would seek Iran's help to ease sectarian tensions in Iraq erupting into full-blown civil war. 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) arrives at Riyadh airport March 3, 2007. Sunni and Shi'ite heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed on Saturday to fight the spread of sectarian strife that threatens to spill over from their neighbour Iraq, the Saudi foreign minister said. (REUTERS/Saudi News Agency/Handout)
Killings by Sunni and Shi'ite death squads in Iraq and the political crisis in Lebanon dividing Sunni and Shi'ite parties have led to fears of sectarian conflict in the Middle East. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran are among the most influential nations of their respective branches of Islam. 

"The two parties have agreed to stop any attempt aimed at spreading sectarian strife in the region," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters. 

"The two leaders stressed that the greatest threat against the Muslim nation are attempts to spread strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims," the official Saudi agency SPA said. 

Ahmadinejad and King Abdullah also voiced support for Iraq's government, its national unity and the "equality of its citizens". 

Ahmadinejad voiced support for Saudi efforts to ease tensions in Lebanon, and the two leaders called on all parts to cooperate with these efforts, the agency said. 

The agency made no reference to Iran's nuclear programme, which Iranian state media had said was expected to be discussed. SPA said Ahmadinejad left Riyadh after the talks. 

Saudi Arabia has led a diplomatic drive in recent months to counterbalance what is regarded as Iran's growing influence in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. 

While Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, Iran is a fierce opponent of Western influence in the region. 

The United States is pushing for the United Nations to impose tougher sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, a process which can make fuel for either atomic bombs or nuclear power plants. 

BATTLE FOR INFLUENCE 

The West suspects Iran's nuclear energy programme aims to develop weapons, an accusation Tehran denies. 

U.S.-allied Arab governments also fear Iran is gaining influence in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, where Saudi Arabia blames Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias for sectarian killings. 

Riyadh wanted to press Iran to exert pressure on Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group backed by Iran and Syria, to put an end to a political standoff in Lebanon, the Saudi official said. 

Diplomats said Iran wanted to address these concerns before an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia later this month. 

"Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have taken up the role of an alliance speaking in the name of the Arab world ... So Iran is making sure its views and positions on Arab issues are heard at summits," a Saudi-based Western diplomat said. 

Saudi and Iranian officials have met several times in recent weeks to mediate between Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's U.S. and Saudi-backed government. 

But their talks, as well as Saudi contacts with Washington and Paris and Iranian talks with its closest regional ally, Syria, appear to have made little headway. 

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have accepted Iraq's invitation to a regional conference in March on easing tensions in Iraq. 

(Additional reporting by Tehran and Beirut bureaux) 

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