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Iran is a major topic at Arab League summit

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—The specter of Iran loomed over a regional summit that closed here Thursday, with Arab League delegates increasingly anxious over their Persian neighbor's meddling in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Officially, the Arab summit's only resolution on Iran was the perennial demand that it relinquish three islands claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

In several closed side meetings, however, Arab diplomats focused on larger concerns: Iran's growing regional power, its potential to inflame sectarian tensions and the unrest their countries could experience if U.S.-led forces were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

"We look forward to decreasing the signs of a dangerous confrontation between Iran and the West that would lead the whole region into the abyss," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in his closing speech Thursday.

Worry over a strike against Iran took on new urgency this week with the Iranian capture of 15 British troops in disputed waters between Iraq and Iran. The move was condemned by Western powers. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal on Thursday called it a "very unfortunate incident" and asked for the troops' release.

"We don't need any more inflammatory incidents in the Gulf," al Faisal told reporters in Riyadh.

The latest incident adds to a long list of Arab concerns that includes Iran's defiant pursuit of a nuclear program and its support for the Palestinian Sunni Muslim militant group Hamas and the Lebanese Shiite guerrillas of Hezbollah.

Delegates also called Iran a driving force for the sectarian tensions in Iraq and worried about the potential for similar turmoil in Gulf Arab nations and areas with significant Shiite populations, such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

Egypt and Syria held a closed bilateral session Thursday where, officials said, envoys worked stealthily to wean Damascus from Tehran's sway. Egypt and Saudi Arabia also proposed a new pact to guard "Arab national security" that would include a comprehensive review of nuclear issues in the region—a swipe at both Iran and Israel.

"OK, Iran has interests. Well, so do the Arab sides," said Arab League spokesman Alaa Roshdi. "And what we need to do is talk about them."

Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region are more strained than at any time in a generation, largely the residual effect of the U.S.-led war that overthrew Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab regime and ushered in an era of unprecedented power for Iraq's Shiite majority and Kurdish allies.

The Shiite-led government in Baghdad still struggles with a legitimacy problem in the Arab world, where Sunni leaders openly accuse Iraqi politicians of serving Iranian interests. State-backed Arab media regularly publish alarmist reports of a spreading "Shiite crescent" that could plunge the Middle East into sectarian chaos.

In December, a Saudi diplomat in Washington was removed from his post after suggesting in an opinion column in The Washington Post that the kingdom would fight to protect Sunnis if U.S.-led troops began withdrawing from Iraq.

A senior Saudi security official on Thursday denied that the kingdom would fund Sunni insurgents to fight Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, but acknowledged that Iraq's Sunni leaders were seeking Saudi help against the Iranians. The official emphasized that "individuals"—not state-sponsored groups—were answering the call.

"What (the Iranians) are doing in Iraq, this is the worst situation you can think of," said the Saudi security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss Iran publicly. "When you have the Sunnis under pressure, they do look for support. And they are."

The official was confident, however, that Iran knew its limits in angering its neighbors: "They're smart enough to know they'll be living in this region forever, with the Sunnis."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, bluntly told his Arab counterparts at the summit that they must stop acting as "spectators" to the war and counter the Iranian presence in Iraq by strengthening diplomatic ties and taking action to stop the flow of weapons and fighters to the Sunni insurgency.

"I always argue with my Arab colleagues and ask them, `Why do you blame the Iranians, that they're there, they're spending money, they're buying influence. The reason is: Iran is there and you are not there,'" Zebari said in an interview. "There are concerns about the Iranians' growing regional influence and power—from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Palestine—and that's why they want to challenge it collectively. There is a greater sense of urgency now."

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, attending the Riyadh summit as a guest, kept a low profile and held side talks with Arab nations such as Oman and Syria.

The summit ended with a resolution calling on the Iraqi government to review its post-Saddam constitution and to recruit more Sunnis into Iraq's security forces, which are widely infiltrated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Zebari said the resolution, unanimously endorsed at a side meeting of foreign ministers, also asks Arab governments to reopen embassies, tighten border security and share intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks.

However, Zebari appeared pessimistic about Arab promises on Iraq, noting that similar calls for help have gone unheeded since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have yet to forgive Iraq's debts. No Arab nation has a functioning embassy in Baghdad, in contrast to the robust Iranian and Turkish diplomatic missions.

"In terms of security cooperation, there are a lot of goodwill statements, but practically, no, we still see all these foreign fighters coming and blowing themselves up in the midst of our innocent civilians," Zebari said. "I told them, `I'm not here to beg you to support this, but it's a responsibility on your shoulders because our failure means you will be affected. The spillover will reach you.'"

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Miret el-Naggar contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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