Saudi Arabia FM Says Iran Cooperating

The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 30, 2007; 9:20 PM

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. ally Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it was working with Iran, America's top rival in the Mideast, to find ways to ease the crises in Lebanon and Iraq _ a departure from Washington's confrontational stance toward Tehran.

The mediation is an unusual step by two rivals that have been competing for influence in the region. Saudi Arabia, which is mainly Sunni Muslim, has been increasingly vocal about its suspicions of mainly Shiite Iran's intentions.

The kingdom's willingness to cooperate with Iran in mediating the conflicts likely points to the alarm that that the bloodshed in Iraq and the possibility of civil war in Lebanon has raised among the Saudi leadership.

But it could complicate Washington's efforts to isolate Tehran. President Bush has stepped up accusations that Iran is fueling turmoil in the Mideast and has vowed to break what he called Iranian support for militants in Lebanon and Iraq. Bush has soundly rejected calls to reach out to Iran for help in the crises.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Tuesday that Iran had approached his country to "cooperate in averting strife between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon."

"Saudi Arabia wants only peace in the region," al-Faisal said. "Contacts are ongoing between Riyadh and Tehran."

A Saudi envoy is in Iran studying all the efforts being exerted to calm the situation in Iraq and Lebanon and "exploring what Iran can contribute," he said.

The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah _ which Iran is believed to support with money and weapons _ has been waging a campaign of street protests for the past two months in an attempt to bring down the Western-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Last week, the protests erupted into clashes between supporters of the two sides that raised fears in Lebanon and across the Middle East that the country could explode into a sectarian civil war between its Shiites and Sunnis.

Saudi Arabia has close ties to Sunni politicians in the government's ruling coalition and has strongly backed Saniora.

Hezbollah has demanded the formation of a new national unity government that would give it and its allies more than a third of the Cabinet seats, enabling them to veto major decisions. Weeks of talks between the government and opposition have stalemated.

In Iraq, Iran is believed to back Shiite militias that have been blamed in killings of Sunni Arabs and it has close ties to Shiite parties that dominate the government. Saudi Arabia has strong tribal links to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.

The contacts come as Saudi Arabia has given tepid support to a new U.S. strategy in Iraq but has expressed skepticism over whether it will succeed. Besides sending 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, the new strategy takes a tougher stance on Iran.

© 2007 The Associated Press