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U.S. Says Has No Evidence Iran Backs Yemen Rebels

MANAMA (Reuters) -- A U.S. official said today he had no proof that Iran is supporting Shi'ite rebels who have seized some Saudi territory, a position at odds with a Yemeni claim that the rebellion has Iranian backing.

"Many of our friends and partners have talked to us about the possibility of outside support to the Houthis [rebels] and we have heard the theories about Iranian support to the Houthis," U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told a regional security conference in Bahrain.

"To be frank, we don't have independent information about this," he said.

The conflict in northern Yemen drew in Sunni Muslim neighbor Saudi Arabia last month when the rebels, known as the Houthis after their leader's clan, seized some Saudi territory, prompting Riyadh to launch a military offensive against them.

Sanaa has accused religious figures from Shi'ite power Iran of funding the rebels but has stopped short of accusing the Tehran government, a traditional supporter of Shi'ite causes.

The United States has expressed concern about the conflict in northern Yemen, which has flared up intermittently since 2004 but intensified last August when the government launched Operation Scorched Earth to stamp out worsening violence.

U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, fears the growing instability in Yemen could turn into a major security threat as the chaos allows Al-Qaeda to gain strength in the impoverished country.

Feltman said the conflict's sectarian aspect should not be exaggerated, and urged all parties to keep the issue contained to Yemen.

"People seem to be finding reasons to widen the conflict when it is in all our collective interest to narrow it," he said.

"I think it's dangerous to exaggerate the [Sunni-Shi'ite] divisions," he added.

Speaking at the same conference, Bahrain's foreign minister said outside involvement in the war was "beyond doubt," adding that the kingdom was ready to come to Saudi Arabia's aid.

"We are here to help," Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa said when asked whether Bahrain was prepared to send special forces to Yemen.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said while visiting U.S. troops in northern Iraq today that he expected the international community to impose significant additional sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.