updated 12/19/2006 11:26:35 AM ET 2006-12-19T16:26:35

Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it would not take sides in Iraqi sectarian violence, denying reports the kingdom may back Sunni Muslims in their fight against Shiites if the United States withdraws from Iraq.

“Since the start of the crisis in Iraq ... the kingdom has said it will stand at an equal distance from all Iraqi groups and does not describe itself as the guardian of any group or sect,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said.

“We cooperate with all those who want a united, independent and sovereign Iraq. And we hope all Iraqi citizens receive equal rights and duties under the law,” he told a news conference.

The New York Times earlier this month cited unnamed U.S. officials and Arab diplomats as saying Riyadh had told Washington it would refrain from aiding the Sunni insurgency only as long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq.

Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence is threatening to descend into a full-scale civil war in Iraq, which Saudi Arabia fears could spill over onto its borders.

Saudi Arabia has a Shiite minority, and some Saudi Sunni militants have gone to Iraq to join insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed Baghdad government. Saudi Arabia itself has been battling a campaign of violence by al-Qaida supporters.

The Washington Times reported this month that a security report commissioned by the Saudi government said Iran has effectively created a Shiite “state within a state” in Iraq.

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