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WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia proposed setting up an Arab force to fight Hezbollah militants in Lebanon with

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal: Arab force needed

Leaks: Saudi Arabia proposed setting up an Arab force to fight Iran-backed militants in Lebanon with US help.

the help of the United States, UN and NATO, a leaked US diplomatic cable said Tuesday.

In a meeting in May 2008 with US ambassador to Iraq David Satterfield, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said a "security response" was needed to the "military challenge" posed to Beirut by the Iran-backed militants.

The Saudi prince feared a Hezbollah victory against the Lebanese government led by then prime minister Fuad Siniora would eventually lead to Iran's takeover of the country.

There was a need for an "Arab force" to create and maintain order in and around Beirut, he argued, saying the Lebanese army was "too fragile to bear more pressure," according to the cable from the US embassy in Riyadh, one of the latest to be released by the website WikiLeaks.

Such a force would be aided by UNIFIL troops deployed in southern Lebanon, while the "US and NATO would need to provide movement and logistic support, as well as naval and air cover," the cable added.

But the plan would likely have triggered alarm in Washington, proposing a return for US troops to Lebanon for the first time since the 1983 suicide bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut which killed almost 300 people.

David Satterfield: security response needed

Saud argued that "of all the regional fronts on which Iran was now advancing, the battle in Lebanon to secure peace would be an easier battle to win."

He told Satterfield that Siniora strongly supported the plan but that only Jordan, Egypt and the Arab League were aware of it.

What was needed was an "Arab force" drawn from Arab "periphery" states to deploy to Beirut under the "cover of the UN," Saud said, accusing the UN troops in southern Lebanon of "sitting doing nothing."

But Satterfield said there were real questions about the "political and military" feasibility of such a scheme, and winning a new mandate for UNIFIL would difficult.

A US diplomatic memo released earlier by WikiLeaks showed Saudi Arabia is obsessed by what it sees as a threat from Iran, fearing Tehran's alleged ambition to spread Shiite Islam.

Underlying the rivalry is a deep Shiite-Sunni schism. Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni, and minority Shiites face regular condemnation by officials as having rejected "true" Islam.

Iran, meanwhile, is predominantly Shiite.

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