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Tehran, Iran: Three Sunni-led countries joined Saudi Arabia on Monday in severing or downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran, worsening a geopolitical conflict with sectarian dimensions in one of the world's most volatile regions.
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Thousands across Iraq protest the Saudi execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric and at least two Sunni Muslim mosques are attacked south of Baghdad in an apparent retaliation for the killing.
The diplomatic protests from the three countries - Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates - came as Iran accused Saudi Arabia of using an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran two days earlier as a pretext for diverting attention from its problems.
Iranian protesters ransacked and set fire to the embassy on Saturday, along with the Saudi Consulate in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad, after the Saudis executed a Shiite cleric who had criticised the Sunni kingdom's treatment of its Shiite minority. The Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was among a group of 47 people who were executed.
The cutting of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes just weeks after a groundbreaking series of talks that brought rival powers to the table to discuss a road map for peace in Syria. In New York in December, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers sat directly across from each other for several hours at a high-level meeting led by the United States and Russia.
Direct talks among the warring parties in Syria, overseen by a United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura, are scheduled to start on January 25 in Geneva. There is still no clarity on who would represent either the Syrian government or the various opposition groups fighting it.
De Mistura said on Monday that he was en route to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and that he then planned to visit Tehran in an attempt to defuse the tensions, which could set back the ambitious diplomatic effort to reach a negotiated resolution to the 5-year-old civil war in Syria.
"This Saudi-Iranian sudden and acute crisis is a very worrisome development, and we must at all costs avoid that it produces a chain of violent consequences in the region," Mr de Mistura said in an email.
The announcements on Monday by the three allies of Saudi Arabia added to the fraught atmosphere in the region.
Relations between Shiite Iran and Bahrain, a Shiite-majority island nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy, were already poor, with Bahrain having accused Iran of meddling in its internal affairs by backing various Shiite opposition groups since the start of the Arab Spring, in 2011.
In October, after accusing Iran of shipping weapons to the island, Bahrain recalled its ambassador in Tehran and expelled the Iranian charge d'affaires in its capital, Manama.
In a statement on Monday, Bahrain said the attack on the embassy and consulate in Iran occurred "without the slightest regard for values, the law or morality" and "confirms a determination to spread devastation and destruction, and provoke unrest and strife in the region by providing protection and support for terrorists and extremists and the smuggling of weapons and explosives for use by its affiliated terrorist cells."
Sudan on Monday expelled the Iranian ambassador in Khartoum, the capital, in protest at the attack on the embassy, the Iranian news agency Fars reported.
The United Arab Emirates, which had already formally protested the embassy attack, on Monday downgraded its ties by recalling its ambassador to Tehran and ordering a reduction in the number of Iranian diplomats stationed in the Emirates.
"This exceptional step has been taken in the light of Iran's continuous interference in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states, which has reached unprecedented levels," the emirates' Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
For its part, Iran, which has arrested dozens of protesters suspected of involvement in the assault on the embassy and consulate, said Saudi Arabia was using the episode to distract attention from problems at home.
"Saudi Arabia, gripped by crises inside and outside its territories, follows the policy of increasing regional tensions," a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaberi-Ansari, said at a weekly news briefing Monday, in remarks that were broadcast live by the state-run news channel Irinn.
As the diplomatic wrangling worsened in the Middle East, there were reports of sporadic violence stemming from the execution of al-Nimr.
The official Saudi Press Agency reported early on Monday that a man had been killed and a child wounded in the village of Awamiya, where the family of al-Nimr is holding three days of mourning at a mosque. The authorities offered no details on whom they suspected in the attack.
Al-Nimr was an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia's Sunni monarchy but had denied ever calling for violence. His execution on Saturday prompted outrage among Shiites across the region.
The sheikh's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, has told The Associated Press that Saudi officials informed his family that the cleric had been buried in an undisclosed cemetery, a development that could lead to further protests.
New York Times