RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia on Saturday warned Iraq against sectarian extremism after two weeks of protests by Sunni Muslims against Baghdad’s Shi‘ite-led government.
The street protests across Iraq’s Sunni heartland have strained the Arab state’s fragile political balance and renewed fears of intensified sectarian strife.
“We are convinced that Iraq will not stabilize until it starts handling issues without sectarian extremism... Until these issues are addressed, we don’t think there will ever be stability in Iraq, which pains us,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference in Riyadh.
Iraq’s Arab majority is mostly Shi‘ite but the country was dominated by Sunnis under former strongman Saddam Hussein and much of the fighting since he was deposed has fallen along sectarian lines.
Sunni Saudi Arabia has a tense relationship with Baghdad and senior princes have previously described Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as being in hock to Shi‘ite Iran, in comments to U.S. diplomats released by WikiLeaks.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, is locked in a struggle for regional influence with fellow OPEC-member Iran, backing opposing sides in Syria and Lebanon, where Shi‘ite parties are allied to Tehran.
Riyadh also accuses Tehran of fomenting unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, and of instigating protests among Saudi Arabia’s own Shi‘ite minority, charges Iran denies.
Former Saudi intelligence head Prince Muqrin described Maliki as “an Iranian 100 percent” in comments to visiting U.S. officials relayed in a July 2008 embassy cable released by the WikiLeaks website.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Janet Lawrence