U.S. ally Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it was working with Iran, America's top rival in the Mideast, to find ways to ease the crises in Lebanon...

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. ally Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it was working with Iran, America’s top rival in the Mideast, to find ways to ease the crises in Lebanon and Iraq — a departure from the United States’ confrontational stance toward Iran.

The mediation is an unusual step by two rivals that have been competing for influence in the region. Saudi Arabia, which is mainly Sunni Muslim, has been increasingly vocal about its suspicions of mainly Shiite Iran’s intentions.

The kingdom’s willingness to cooperate with Iran likely points to the alarm that that the bloodshed in Iraq and the possibility of civil war in Lebanon has raised among the Saudi leadership.

But it could complicate U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, which President Bush accuses of supporting militants in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as developing a nuclear-weapons program. Bush has rejected talks with Iran over the crises.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Tuesday that Iran had approached his country to “cooperate in averting strife between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon.”

Al-Faisal said “contacts are ongoing between Riyadh and Tehran” and that a Saudi envoy is in Iran “exploring what Iran can contribute,” he said.

The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah — which Iran is believed to support with money and weapons — has been waging a campaign of street protests for the past two months in an attempt to bring down the Western-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Last week, the protests erupted into clashes between supporters of the two sides that raised fears in Lebanon and across the Middle East that the country could explode into a sectarian civil war between its Shiites and Sunnis.

Saudi Arabia has close ties to Sunni politicians in the government’s ruling coalition and has strongly backed Saniora.

Hezbollah has demanded the formation of a new national unity government that would give it and its allies more than a third of the Cabinet seats, enabling them to veto major decisions. Weeks of talks between the government and opposition have stalemated.

In Iraq, Iran is believed to back Shiite militias that have been blamed in killings of Sunni Arabs, and it has close ties to Shiite parties that dominate the government. Saudi Arabia has strong tribal links to Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority.