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In a rare public comment over the weekend, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned that Iran's interference in Iraq and elsewhere is threatening the Gulf region. The king made his comments to a Kuwaiti newspaper.
Meanwhile, an Iranian diplomat told The New York Times that his country, which is largely Shiite, is deepening its military and economic ties with Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, conservative Sunni clerics are condemning Shiites and calling on Saudis to defend their Sunni brothers in Iraq. But even amid all this tension, Saudi leaders are still talking to Tehran, unlike the United States.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
PETER KENYON: The normally media-shy Saudi King made headlines when he said Iran, with its interference in Iraq and nuclear ambitions is courting danger that could spread through the region. Conservative Wahabi clerics are all ready urging Saudis to go defend the Iraqi Sunnis against the murderous attacks of Shiite death squads.
Saudi security official General Mansur al-Turki says border guards haven't reported large numbers of people trying to sneak into Iraq, but the 800-mile desert frontier is still in the process of being fortified.
General MANSUR al-TURKI (Saudi Security Official): Of course, there are attempts from both sides. We are (unintelligible) actually. We really watch out, we follow what's going on in Iraq, especially to situations where our country can be considered to be a foreign state, which provide tourism a safe haven, at least for a period of time.
KENYON: On the streets of Riyadh, moderate Sunnis like Mohammed, a 24-year-old bank employee, says it's inevitable that some Saudis are following the call of the hard-line clerics to bring an anti-Shiite jihad to Iraq.
MOHAMMED: (Through translator) Yes. There will be some Saudi guys who go to Iraq, especially younger people. The biggest troop is the last terrorist attack here. It was mostly young guys, 25 years old or even younger. And the American troops when they leave Iraq will leave chaos.
KENYON: Saudis are not alone in their alarm as they watch Shiite leaders flex newfound political muscle. Jordan's King Abdullah warned of a Shiite crescent of power forming in the Mideast. And in Lebanon, the Shiite militia Hezbollah, with Iranian support, is trying to topple the government.
The Shiite majority in Bahrain is demanding political rights. And in Yemen, authorities are battling Shiite rebels.
Analysts say there is deep skepticism in Saudi Arabia over President Bush's plan to send more U.S. forces to Baghdad, despite the government's official endorsement of the plan. Jeddah-based editor and columnist Khaled Batarfi with Al-Madina newspaper says above all, there's a deep mistrust of Iraq Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Mr. KHALED BATARFI (Al-Madina Newspaper): He's part of the problem, not the solution. He's loyalty is to Iran and he's an ideologist. He's not a politician. It's amazing that al-Maliki is critical of the Bush plan to send 20,000 soldiers to Baghdad. They didn't want him in Baghdad because he wanted a free zone for his militias and Shiite forces to finish their job.
KENYON: The job Batarfi believes Maliki wants to finish is the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from many parts of the capital. Political scientist Wahid Hashim says the increasingly sectarian nature of the crisis in Iraq is alarming and he's convinced that's precisely the effect Iran is hoping to create.
Mr. WAHID HASHIM (Abdul Aziz University): Now, they are using the ideology of jihad in order to rally both the Sunnis and the Shiites against the Americans. If they manage to defeat America in Iraq and they make Iraq another Vietnam, the world's interest will be threatened and Iran's influence will increase gigantically in the region.
KENYON: And yet, the Saudis are still talking to Tehran. The two countries have traded diplomatic visits to discuss the political crisis in Lebanon as well as Iraq. Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues to talk about but not to Iran. Vice President Dick Cheney told Newsweek magazine that Washington's message to Iran is the deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. Analyst Mohammed Sal Hadin(ph) says in his view, Washington is dottily pursuing a dead-end policy.
Mr. MOHAMMED SAL HADIN (Political Analyst): No, I think there is no way to go out of this bloody problem without talking to Iran and Syria. No way.
KENYON: Sal Hadin disagrees with his countrymen, and there are many, who say the U.S. must stay in Iraq until the violence is under control. He says sending more American troops to Iraq now is like fighting a fire with gasoline.
Mr. SALHADIN: Oh yes. Definitely, it can spill over, and - well, I hope first of all that the American get out of the area. Definitely, the presence of the American Armed Forces is a major part of the problem and the major cause of this bloodshed.
KENYON: In general, Arabs are hoping that somehow President Bush can yet fix the mess in Iraq, but Mohammed, the young Sunni banker from Riyadh, says even if things do get better there, there will be a lasting scar from this war.
MOHAMMED: (Through translator) Before the war, we were all feeling that we are Muslims. We didn't hate the Shia. But America's invasion has brought this hatred between us. So when now when you hear Shia, you feel anger and hatred.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Riyadh.
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