Iraq PM Says Yemen Could Engulf Region In War, Slams Saudi Operations

FILE - In this Friday, April 10, 2015 file photo, Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, hold up their weapons as they attend a pro
FILE - In this Friday, April 10, 2015 file photo, Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, hold up their weapons as they attend a protest against Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen. Pakistani lawmakers on Friday unanimously voted to stay out of the Saudi-led air coalition targeting Shiite rebels in Yemen in a blow to the alliance, while planes loaded with badly needed medical aid landed in Yemen's embattled capital, Sanaa, in the first such deliveries since the airstrikes started more than two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON, April 15 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on Wednesday the fighting in Yemen could engulf the region in war, and suggested after talks in Washington that U.S. leaders shared his concerns and "want to stop this conflict as soon as possible."

Abadi, who met with U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday, also said that convincing Iraq's neighbor Saudi Arabia to halt its offensive in Yemen could be difficult.

Saudi Arabia is engaged in a three-week-old campaign of air strikes against Yemen's Houthi rebels, who are allied with Iran and have taken over the capital and forced the president to take refuge in Riyadh.

Asked about Iranian efforts to broker a peace deal for Yemen, Abadi said: "From what I understand from the (Obama) administration, the Saudis are not helpful on this. They don't want a cease-fire now."

Asked whether Obama broadly shared his concerns, Abadi said the administration did.

The White House, however, denied Obama had criticized Saudi Arabia in his talks with Abadi and renewed U.S. support for the anti-Houthi military campaign by the Saudis and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council regional grouping.

"We firmly support current GCC-led operations ... which is why we have been providing support for coalition operations," said National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey.

Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir said he had not heard any U.S. criticism of the operation.

"I don't know how the Iraqi prime minister got to that assessment. But I would think the Iraqis should really focus on the problems that are in their own country," al-Jubeir told a press conference.

Abadi noted his country had suffered from a spillover of hostilities from neighboring states, including the advance by Islamic State militants into Iraq from Syria.

"This (Yemen war) can engulf the whole region in another conflict," Abadi said, adding: "We don't need another sectarian war in the region."

The United States is in an awkward position in both Iraq and Yemen. In Iraq, it is supporting Abadi's Shi'ite led-government in its war against Sunni extremists from Islamic State, which puts it on the same side of the battle as Iran-backed fighters.

But the United States is also an ally of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia in its battle against Iran-backed Houthis, deepening its intelligence cooperation.

Abadi noted the U.S. position, with some unease.

"Can you work both? Both sides? Here (you) are with Iraq against (Islamic State), there, against Yemen?" (Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Warren Strobel and Emily Stephenson; editing by David Story and G Crosse)