Saudis step up role in Mideast

Saudi Arabia waded into the intractable conflict between rival Palestinian factions Tuesday, hosting a reconciliation conference between Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah, rivals that have been fighting in the streets for weeks.

Finding a solution to the internal power struggle could have a considerable regional impact. But much more is driving Saudi Arabia's renewed interest than brokering a Palestinian peace deal, say analysts.

At the root of this conference and other recent diplomatic moves lies Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia's long-running rivalry with Shiite Persian Iran for influence in the Middle East, particularly over armed factions.

The Palestinian conflict is only one of the flash points in which the Saudis are more actively trying to counter the influence of Iran, which has spread its support to Hamas and other militant groups, say analysts. In Lebanon, it backs the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the Shiite militant group Hizbullah, which receives funding from Iran. In Iraq, it is building ties to Sunni insurgent groups, say diplomats, as a possible counter to Iranian support for Shiite militants if the US withdraws.

With the regional perception of a weakened US in the region as a consequence of the war in Iraq and its own concerns about Iran's regional ambitions, analysts say Saudi Arabia feels it has little choice to take a more active role. Also driving this, they say, is a concern within the ruling structure of Saudi Arabia that when the US leaves Iraq, the region may be faced with a broader conflict.

"Saudi Arabia is pursuing two tracks," says Toby Jones, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and a historian of modern Saudi Arabia.

"One is simply to preserve the status quo, to try to stabilize the region. The other is the fact that there could be broader conflict in, and if that happens, they want all of their supporters and allies to be well positioned," he says.

There appears to be a great deal of concern in Riyadh that Iran's alliance with Iraq's Shiite government is strengthening, while leading Sunni Arabs there, who have had close ties to the Saudi regime, may be completely shut out of the government.

Also, the Saudis appear to be just as concerned about Iran's nuclear program as the US is, say analysts.

But Wayne White, a fellow at the Middle East Institute, says most of the regional moves being made by Saudi Arabia and Iran these days amount to jockeying for position in Iraq.

The Saudis "are very deeply concerned about the prospect of an American withdrawal from Iran and an American war weariness that will make the US involvement more limited,'' he says. "The Saudis see they have to get more involved ... they see the US star setting in Iraq, and that can lead to a bruising regional power grab involving all sorts of actors, including Iran."

"If a full-blown civil war gets under way, which is quite likely, then you would see this thing expanding rapidly into the region, with the Iranians rushing to assist their Shiite allies in Iraq and the Sunnis rushing to bolster the Sunni Arabs."

Mr. White predicts that a US withdrawal from the country would see Saudi Arabia funding Sunni Arab insurgent groups drawn from Saddam Hussein's old supporters. He points to Saudi Arabia's construction of a sophisticated fence along its border with Iraq as evidence of their expectation that the conflict there will spread.

While the US may be happy to see Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states take action to counter the rise of Iranian influence, the US also helped install the Shiite government in Iraq that Saudi allies would seek to topple if the war there worsens, as analysts like White predict.

"We're not there yet, but when the proxy war starts that's going to be an incredible engine for regional instability," he says.

In Mecca Tuesday before talks between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the two groups share the will to find a solution to the internal conflict. "Both sides are coming without preconditions and without deadlines," he said.

Palestinian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Jamal al-Shobaki said a deal was crucial. "They will not leave this holy place without an agreement, because things are catastrophic on the ground and the whole world will turn its back on us if we continue that way."

Hamas sources said the group's Damascus-based leader Khaled Meshaal and the head of the Hamas-led government, Ismail Haniyeh, met with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah after Mr. Meshaal arrived in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

King Abdullah met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, earlier and voiced hope they would "achieve the aspirations of the Palestinian people," the Saudi Press Agency said.

"We urged our brothers in Saudi Arabia to intervene to bridge the gaps to conclude an agreement," said Nabil Amr, an adviser to Mr. Abbas, after the meeting. "The alternative is more deterioration and early elections."

The Palestinian leaders are expected to seek inspiration by performing pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site.

Western countries have blocked funding to Hamas until it recognizes Israel and agrees to previous agreements with it signed by the Palestinian Authority, a self-rule body set up in 1993 on land occupied by Israel in 1967 and on which Palestinians hope to establish their own state.

Israel and the US do not want Abbas to agree to a unity government that stops short of recognizing the Jewish state, renouncing violence in the historic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and abiding by interim peace deals.

Senior Abbas aide Azzam al-Ahmad said the talks would aim to persuade Hamas to accept the program of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which would involve an implicit Hamas recognition of Israel that could end the aid blockade.

"This won't contradict the requirements for lifting the siege ... I'm sure once Hamas honors PLO agreements the Quartet will not be asking Hamas to recognize Israel any more," he said, referring to a bloc of Middle East peace mediators made up of the US, European Union, United Nations, and Russia.

Haniyeh, speaking before leaving his base in Gaza for the talks, said his side would do all it could to reach an agreement over the formation of a unity government.

Material from Reuters was used in this story.

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