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Yemen Says War With Rebels Not About Shi'ism

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (right) with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki at the presidential palace in Sana'a in April 2008
DUBAI (Reuters) -- The Yemeni government has said it has no conflict with minority Shi'ite Muslims, as its war with Shi'ite rebels in the north increasingly draws Sunni Muslim neighbor Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite power Iran.

"The state has no dispute with the Shi'ite confession which it respects like any other Islamic confession. The conflict with terrorist elements is not sectarian but stems from them being a rebel group outside the law...," a Foreign Ministry official said in a statement to Yemeni media.

The statement came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki denied Tehran was supporting the rebels and said his country was seeking stability in the whole region but warned of "consequences" over the conflict.

"We strongly warn that financial and arms support of the radical groups and also a suppressive attitude towards the people would have improper consequences," Mottaki said, in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia's puritanical form of mainstream Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism.

The rebels, who are known as Houthis after the clan of their leader, say they are fighting political, economic and religious marginalization in Yemen. They say President Ali Abdullah Saleh's close ties to Riyadh have led him to allow Wahhabism to have too much sway in the country.

The Zaidi Shi'ites are thought to make up at least one-third of Yemen's population of 23 million, though they are a minority within Shi'ite Islam whose beliefs differ from those in Iran.

Saleh, himself a Zaidi, has been careful not to attack the Houthis for their religious beliefs but accuses them of wanting to reestablish a Shi'ite state that existed for centuries in north Yemen until 1962.

The government has accused Iranian religious figures of funding the rebels, though stopped short of accusing the Tehran government, a traditional supporter of Shi'ite causes.

The rebels have accused Saudi Arabia of providing military support to Sanaa since fighting erupted in August, a charge Riyadh and Sanaa denied.

But last week Saudi Arabia launched an offensive against the rebels after they staged a cross-border raid during which they seized Saudi territory.

Mottaki reiterated Iran's offer to help.

"Iran is ready to actively cooperate with the Yemeni government and other countries of the region for stability and security of the region ... with respect to the sovereignty of the countries of the region," he said at a news conference on November 11.

"Whatever goes on in Yemen is a complete internal affair and we are hopeful it ends peacefully."