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story.lead_photo.caption Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is shown in this file photo.

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia used its position as host of an annual gathering of Arab leaders on Sunday to push for a unified stance against rival Iran as the regional powerhouses vie for the upper hand in wars in Syria and Yemen.

Saudi King Salman told leaders from across the 22-member Arab League that Iran was to blame for instability and meddling in the region. He said Yemeni rebel Houthis, backed by Iran, had fired 116 missiles at the kingdom since Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen three years ago to try to roll back Houthi gains there.

The meeting took place in the oil-rich eastern Saudi city of Dhahran, a location that may have been selected by the kingdom to avoid cross-border Houthi missile strikes that have targeted the capital, Riyadh, and southern border cities.

While locked in proxy conflicts in Yemen and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran also back opposing groups in Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq.

The meeting this year took place after the U.S., Britain and France launched dozens of strikes early Saturday at sites they said were linked to Syria's chemical weapons program. President Bashar Assad and his close ally, Russia, have denied government forces ever used such weapons.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said Assad's government and "international players trying to achieve their own strategic political goals" bear responsibility for the crisis there.

"Regional interference in Arab affairs has reached an unprecedented degree. And first of these is the Iranian interference, the aim of which is not for the well-being of the Arabs or their interests," he said.

A final statement by the 22-member states refrained from supporting or criticizing those strikes. The league said it condemns the use of chemical weapons but did not lay direct blame on any one party.

Assad was not invited to the gathering, though most heads of state from across the Middle East and North Africa attended the Arab League meeting, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

At the start of the meeting, Aboul-Gheit lamented a lack of consensus among Arab states on regional security.

"The crises burning in some corners of the Arab world today ... cast a shadow over the safety and security over the entire region," Aboul-Gheit said. "These take a toll on the national security of all of us."

Instead, Arab heads of state stressed unity and unwavering support for Palestinians. King Salman reiterated Saudi Arabia's rejection of the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Despite the monarch's stern words of condemnation, Saudi Arabia has strengthened ties with Washington under the President Donald Trump's administration.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir defended those ties, saying "there is no contradiction" with having very strong strategic ties with the U.S. while advising against certain policies.

"The fact that we have very strong ties with the U.S. over history, and the Trump administration in particular, is a positive factor, not a negative factor in trying to help guide them towards a positive engagement in the Middle East," al-Jubeir told reporters after the talks.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, announced at the meeting a $150 million donation to the religious administration that oversees Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque -- one of Islam's holiest sites. The kingdom announced another $50 million for programs run by the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians after the U.S. slashed its aid.

The strongest criticism of the Trump administration came from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The decisions have made the United States a party to the conflict and not a neutral mediator," Abbas said at the gathering.

Saudi tensions with neighboring Qatar were on display at the meeting. Qatar's emir was not in attendance, instead dispatching his country's Arab League representative to the meeting. While the Qatari flag was erected alongside other member-state flags on the streets of Dhahran, the country's representative did not appear in a group photo of the top delegates in attendance.

Tensions heightened nearly a year ago when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar and imposed a de facto blockade on the small Persian Gulf state. The four accuse Qatar of sponsoring terrorism because of its support for Islamist opposition groups in the region and its warm relations with Iran. Qatar denies the allegations and says the moves attempt to undermine its sovereignty.

The standoff with Qatar, however, did not feature in meeting deliberations.

Information for this article was contributed by Maggie Hyde of The Associated Press.

A Section on 04/16/2018

Print Headline: Saudis push for Arab unity against Iran

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