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Yemen says war with rebels not about Shi'ism

DUBAI, Nov 11 (Reuters) - The Yemeni government said on Wednesday it had no conflict with minority Shi'ite Muslims, as its war with Shi'ite rebels in the north increasingly draws Sunni Muslim neighbour Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite power Iran.

"The state has no dispute with the Shi'ite confession which it respects like any other Islamic confession. The conflict with terrorist elements is not sectarian but stems from them being a rebel group outside the law...," a foreign minister official said in a statement to Yemeni media.

The statement came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki denied Tehran was supporting the rebels and said his country was seeking stability in the whole region but warned of "consequences" over the conflict.

"We strongly warn that financial and arms support of the radical groups and also a suppressive attitude towards the people would have improper consequences," Mottaki said, in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia's puritanical form of mainstream Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism.

The rebels, who are known as Houthis after the clan of their leader, say they are fighting political, economic and religious marginalisation in Yemen. They say President Ali Abdullah Saleh's close ties to Riyadh have led him to allow Wahhabism to have too much sway in the country.

The Zaidi Shi'ites are thought to make up at least a third of Yemen's population of 23 million, though they are a minority within Shi'ite Islam whose beliefs differ from those in Iran.

Saleh, himself a Zaidi, has been careful not to attack the Houthis for their religious beliefs but accuses them of wanting to reestablish a Shi'ite state that existed for centuries in north Yemen until 1962.

The government has accused Iranian religious figures of funding the rebels, though stopped short of accusing the Tehran government, a traditional supporter of Shi'ite causes.

The rebels have accused Saudi Arabia of providing military support to Sanaa since fighting erupted in August, a charge Riyadh and Sanaa denied.

But last week Saudi Arabia launched an offensive against the rebels after they staged a cross-border raid during which they seized Saudi territory.

Mottaki reiterated Iran's offer to help.

"Iran is ready to actively cooperate with the Yemeni government and other countries of the region for stability and security of the region ... with respect to the sovereignty of the countries of the region," he said at a news conference on Wednesday.

"Whatever goes on in Yemen is a complete internal affair and we are hopeful it ends peacefully."

Reporting by Mohamed Sudam; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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