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Saudi king receives Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr

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January 11, 2006

MINA, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi King Abdullah has held talks with radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr at his palace in Mina near the Muslim holy city of Mecca, while the annual Hajj pilgrimage wound down on Wednesday.

"The meeting was to strengthen relations between the two countries," the firebrand cleric said on Wednesday, declining to give details.

Saudi state television broadcast footage of the meeting which took place late on Tuesday, after which the Saudi monarch appeared showing Sadr around the palace. King Abdullah received Sadr again on Wednesday as part of a reception for dignitaries and world leaders who took part in the Hajj.

Sadr who led a bloody rebellion against US-led forces in Iraq in 2004, walked into the sumptuous conference room in his hallmark black robes and turban and sat to the left of the king.

The king addressed his guests praising the cohesion between pilgrims who descended on Mecca from different parts of the world.

"Had this unity which prevails during Hajj - overcoming differences in race and colour - dominated daily behavior between Muslims, our situation would have been different," he said.

Sadr later expressed pessimism about the future of his war-torn country following the December 15 legislative polls.

"I am pessimistic. Fanaticism and branding others as apostates dominate now," said Sadr, who was in Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj for the first time in his life.

Sadr travelled overland from Iraq and was told by Saudi officials upon arrival that he was a guest of the king, according to the Iraqi Hajj delegation chief, Sheikh Khaled Al Atiyah.

Sadr, who only speaks Arabic, has rarely travelled abroad. His only known trip outside Iraq was to neighboring Iran to take part in a June 2003 commemoration of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death.

The meeting between King Abdullah and Sadr was significant because of past tensions between the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom and radical Shias in the Middle East.

In November 2005, Sadr's movement launched an international campaign to collect 8 million signatures in favor of reconstructing the shrines of four revered Shia imams in Medina, another holy city in western Saudi Arabia.

These shrines were destroyed at the start of the 20th century when the late King Abdul Aziz established the kingdom, according to Sadr's movement.

Sadr's meeting with the king comes after Saudi authorities on Saturday accused the outgoing government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari of favouring his Shia supporters in the distribution of Iraq's Hajj quota.

The Saudi system grants a country 1,000 permits for every 1 million of population in a bid to avoid overcrowding.

Jaafari criticised Saudi Arabia's decision not to allow another 7,000 Iraqi pilgrims into the kingdom on January 2 after Iraq's quota of 27,500 had been exceeded.

Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic ties with Iraq that were severed when Saddam Hussein invaded neighbouring Kuwait in 1990.

But relations between the two countries have remained tense with Saudi Arabia voicing concern over the influence of Iran on the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

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