Saudi Arabia criticizes Iran's Hezbollah support

/ Source: The Associated Press

Saudi Arabia accused Iran of backing what it called a coup by Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon — the clearest sign yet of rising regional tensions over the conflict.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in a press conference Tuesday that Iran's relations with Arab countries would be affected by its support for Hezbollah.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swiftly responded, telling reporters that Saud spoke in anger and his comments probably did not reflect the views of the Saudi King Abdullah. Ahmadinejad described Iran as the only country that did not interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs.

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

Saudi mistrust of Iran has been heightened by U.S.-backed allegations that Iran funds, trains and arms Shiite militants in Iraq. The kingdom has yet to reopen its embassy in Baghdad, after Saddam Hussein's fall and the rise to power of a Shiite-dominated regime.

Crisis in Lebanon
Lebanon has suffered from almost a week of clashes between supporters of the Western-backed government and the Shiite Hezbollah opposition that have left at least 54 people dead. Hezbollah and its allies swept through Beirut, displacing pro-government gunmen and temporarily taking control of many neighborhoods.

"Of course, Iran is backing what happened in Lebanon, a coup, and supports it," Saud said. "It will affect its relations with all Arab countries, even the Islamic ones."

"The kingdom calls on all regional parties to respect the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon and to stop meddling in its affairs and inciting sectarian tensions," Saud said. He accused Hezbollah of taking "violent, offensive measures, which aim at an annihilation of people."

Saudi officials have continued dialogue with their Iranian counterparts, he said, but action on the ground in Lebanon is what is needed.

The Lebanese army expanded its troop deployment to several tense areas around the country Tuesday, hours after it said soldiers will use force if needed to impose law and order.

The army's announcement indicated that it could step up its involvement to bring an end to the country's worst internal fighting since the end of the civil war in 1990.