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Ahmadinejad, Saudi king reject sectarian strife

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 neighbor Iraq, the Saudi foreign minister said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) arrives at Riyadh airport March 3, 2007. REUTERS/Saudi News Agency/Handout

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 Sunni Muslim kingdom would seek Shi’ite Iran’s help to ease sectarian tensions in Iraq erupting into full-blown civil war.

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 without elaborating.

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.

A Saudi official said the kingdom would try to convince Tehran to comply with U.N. resolutions and suspend enrichment.

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The United States and its regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, suspect Iran’s nuclear energy program 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 also 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.

Ahmadinejad was earlier quoted by Iran’s IRNA news agency as saying: “In the meeting with King Abdullah, we will discuss those issues that should be carried out jointly in the Islamic world and also the region.”

Iranian state radio said talks would also cover “Iran’s nuclear case”.

Diplomats say Iran wants 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 bureaus