updated 6/1/2008 6:45:10 PM ET 2008-06-01T22:45:10

Hardline Sunni clerics accused Shiites Sunday of destabilizing Muslim countries and humiliating Sunnis, just days before a Muslim interfaith conference called by Saudi Arabia's king.

The attacks on Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah — though contrary to official policy — highlight the sharp, growing distrust between Islam's two arms, and its potential to cause more unrest.

In a strongly worded statement, the 22 clerics savaged Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants, saying the Lebanese Shiite group has tricked other Muslims into believing it is against Jews and Americans.

The statement appeared on several Web sites Sunday, including one run by Sheik Nasser al-Omar, one of the signers. The 22 clerics are known for their radical views and have previously released virulent anti-Shiite statements.

A Saudi official told The Associated Press that the clerics who issued the statement do not represent the official Saudi religious establishment, and their views do not reflect those adopted by the government. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Growing Sunni distrust of Shiites
But the clerics' anti-Shiite diatribe reflects growing Sunni distrust of Shiites and Iran. The trend surfaced with the sectarian unrest in Iraq over the past year and escalated dramatically after Hezbollah, in a show of force, overran predominantly Sunni areas of Beirut last month.

Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri has accused Iran in recent messages of seeking to extend its power in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and through its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.

In their statement the clerics accused Shiites of abusing Sunnis under their control.

"If they (Shiites) have a country, they humiliate and exert control in their rule over Sunnis," said the clerics, specifically citing Iran and Iraq. "They sow strife, corruption and destruction among Muslims and destabilize security in Muslim countries ... such as Yemen."

The Yemeni government is engaged in a fight against rebels from the al-Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam and officials in Yemen and Saudi Arabia suspect Iran of supporting the insurgency.

Najib al-Khonaizi, a Saudi Shiite writer, called the statement "dangerous" and damaging to national unity.

"This statement in its essence is a cheap call for incitement," he told the AP. Shiites make up an estimated 10-15 percent of Saudi Arabia's 22 million people

The statement is potentially embarrassing for the government because it comes a few days before the opening of a much-touted Muslim interfaith conference in the holy city of Mecca that aims at closing Muslim ranks and discussing dialogue with other faiths. Over 500 Islamic scholars — reportedly including former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani — are expected to attend the three-day conference, which begins Wednesday.

The event is the first step of a wider interfaith dialogue between Muslims and adherents of other religions, notably Christians and Jews, that King Abdullah called for a few months ago.

Saudi Arabia, which follows the severe Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam that considers Shiites infidels, is worried by the growing regional influence of Iran's Shiite government and its allies in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

Iraq war rekindling Sunni-Shiite divide
The 2003 U.S-led war to topple Saddam Hussein's Sunni-run regime in Iraq has rekindled the centuries-old divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The historic split, which resulted from a succession dispute after Prophet Muhammad's death in 632, reopened in Iraq as Sunni extremists began targeting Shiites allied with the U.S. in Iraq, who retaliated with death squad killings of their own.

As the numbers of Sunnis killed by shadowy Shiite death squads in Iraq mounted, outrage grew around the region, reaching its peak when tensions between Lebanon's sects flared into gun battles in May.

Some Arab media outlets and Web sites have portrayed the Lebanese street fights as a Shiite incursion against Sunnis — a claim Hezbollah has denied. They have also said that Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, have lost the admiration they won across the Arab world when the group bombarded northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets during a 34-day war with Israel in summer 2006.

"Today, more than 200 million Arabs see him (Nasrallah) as fighting the Sunni enemy," wrote Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, head of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper a week after violence erupted in Lebanon.

"Nasrallah ... has pushed the region into a Sunni-Shiite conflict for at least the next 10 years, not only in Lebanon, but also in the rest of the Arab and perhaps Islamic world," he added. "Millions of Sunnis feel that he has gone too far in humiliating Sunnis."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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