Iraq militia says fires mortar bombs at Saudi as warning

Reuters

* Six mortar bombs fall near Saudi border with Kuwait, Iraq

* No oil facilities nearby, no Saudi military alert

* Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militia claims responsibility (Adds claim of responsibility)

By Angus McDowall and Suadad al-Salhy

RIYADH/BAGHDAD, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Six mortar bombs landednear a border post in northern Saudi Arabia in an attack claimedby an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militia, which said onThursday it was warning the kingdom to stop meddling in Iraqiaffairs.

The mortar rounds hit desert on the far northwestern fringesof the kingdom's oil-producing region on Wednesday, severalhundred kilometres (miles) from the major fields operated by theworld's largest oil exporter and biggest Arab economy.

"The goal was to send a warning message to Saudis to tellthem that their border stations and patrol are within our rangeof fire," Wathiq al-Batat, commander of Iraq's al-Mukhtar Armymilitia, told Reuters in Baghdad by telephone.

He said the militia wanted Riyadh to stop "interfering" inIraq and that it had also been angered by Saudis and Kuwaitiswho he said had insulted the Prophet Mohammad's daughter.

There was no independent confirmation that the militia wasbehind the mortar fire, reported two days after twin suicidebombings killed 25 people near Iran's embassy in Beirut. SomeShi'ite commentators blamed that assault on Iran's regionalrival Saudi Arabia, which has condemned the Beirut attack.

Iran has not commented on the mortar attack on Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General MansourTurki said Iraq and Kuwait, as well as the kingdom itself, wereinvestigating the mortar fire. Baghdad said it was not involved.

"There were no rockets or anything fired towards the Saudiborder by security forces," said Jabar al-Sa'adi, head of Basraprovincial council's security committee, in southern Iraq.

Turki said Saudi forces had not been put on higher alertafter the bombardment.

Saudi news website sabq.org published pictures of smallcraters in the desert which it said the mortar fire had caused.A high barbed-wire fence and a road were visible in some photos.

"Six mortar rounds fell in an uninhabited area near the newal-Auja border guard centre of Hafr al-Batin in EasternProvince. Thank God, no damage resulted," said border guardspokesman General Mohammed al-Ghamdi.

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Al-Mukhtar Army is a relatively new Shi'ite militia, whichhas said it is supported and funded by Iran. Batat is a formerleader of the more well-known Kata'ib Hezbollah militia.

"This is just the beginning and there will be more attacksif they (the Saudis) do not stop," he said.

Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with the Geneva andJeddah-based Gulf Research Centre, said al-Mukhtar was amongseveral Iraqi groups linked to Iranian intelligence.

"The timing is linked to the attack on the embassy (inBeirut), he said, adding that the group might also have beentrying to sabotage a call this month by Iraqi Prime MinisterNouri al-Maliki for better ties with Saudi Arabia.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Kuwait, has hadtense relations with the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government, which itviews as a pawn of Iran. It has not had an ambassador based inBaghdad since before the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.

Sectarian fighting in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in2003 has involved Sunni militants close to al Qaeda as well asShi'ite militias which have no love for Saudi Arabia.

Some Iraqi Shi'ites support Syrian President Bashar al-Assadin his 2-1/2-year-old struggle to crush what has become an armedrevolt by mainly Sunni rebels, some of them backed by Riyadh.

The conflict has aggravated Sunni-Shi'ite antagonism acrossthe region, not least in Syria's smaller neighbour Lebanon,where Iran and Saudi Arabia have long vied for influence.

A Lebanon-based Sunni group linked to al Qaeda has claimedresponsibility for the Iran embassy attack in Beirut.

The Saudi border area with Iraq and Kuwait lies deep in alargely unpopulated desert. The kingdom has installed fencesalong its long frontier with Iraq, about 60 km (38 miles) ofwhich runs along the edge of Eastern Province, which is home tomany of Saudi Arabia's own substantial Shi'ite minority.

The kingdom has oil facilities in the Neutral Zone it shareswith Kuwait, more than 100 km (62 miles) from Hafr al-Batin, butits main oil and gas fields are much further to the southeast. (Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Baghdad,; Editing byWilliam Maclean and Alistair Lyon)

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