RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, (AP) – Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric accused Iran on Monday of supporting Shiite rebels whose war with the government of neighboring Yemen has spilled across the border and drawn in Saudi firepower.
Yemen and the Saudis have accused Iran of sending money and weapons to the rebels to aid their fight against government forces — a sporadic five-year battle that has intensified dramatically since August. Iran denies the charge.
The rebels prompted the intervention of Saudi warplanes and artillery at the start of this month by attacking a Saudi patrol across the border.
The fighting has raised concerns of another proxy war in the Middle East between the region’s dominant Shiite power, Iran, and Sunni rival Saudi Arabia, a key Arab ally of the United States.
The Saudi cleric, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheikh, said the purported collaboration between Iran and the rebels was one of “sin and aggression,” according to Al-Watan newspaper.
Al Sheikh said the kingdom has the right to defend itself against the rebels.
According to the report, the cleric urged the rebels to “repent … and know that their actions are wrong.”
The rebels, known as Hawthis after the name of their leader, say they are fighting Yemen’s government because it has neglected the needs of their religious community in the north of Yemen, the most impoverished nation in the Middle East.
Members of their community are from a sect of Shiite Islam and are known as Zaydis. The rebels accuse Yemen’s government of allying with hard-line Sunni fundamentalists who view the Zaydis as heretics.
Yemen’s weak central government, which has little control outside the capital, San’a, is also fighting a separatist movement in the south and struggling to confront a lingering threat from al-Qaeda militants.