RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Hard-line Sunni clerics accused Shiites yesterday of destabilizing Muslim countries and humiliating Sunnis, just days before a Muslim interfaith conference called by Saudi Arabia's king.

The attacks on Shiite Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah - though contrary to official policy in mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia - highlight the sharp, growing distrust between Islam's two arms, and its potential to cause more unrest.

In a strongly worded statement, the 22 clerics savaged Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants, saying the Lebanese Shiite group has tricked other Muslims into believing it is against Jews and Americans.

The statement appeared on several Web sites, including

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, which is run by Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, one of the signers. The 22 clerics are known for their radical views and have previously released virulent anti-Shiite statements.

A Saudi official told the Associated Press that the clerics who issued the statement do not represent the official Saudi religious establishment, and their views do not reflect those adopted by the government.

But the clerics' anti-Shiite diatribe reflects growing Sunni distrust of Shiites and Iran. The trend surfaced with the sectarian unrest in Iraq over the last year and escalated dramatically after Hezbollah, in a show of force, overran predominantly Sunni areas of Beirut last month.

In their statement the clerics accused Shiites of abusing Sunnis under their control.

"If they [Shiites] have a country, they humiliate and exert control in their rule over Sunnis," said the clerics, specifically citing Iran and Iraq.

The statement is potentially embarrassing for the Saudi government because it comes a few days before the opening of a much-touted Muslim interfaith conference in the Mecca that aims at closing Muslim ranks and discussing dialogue with other faiths.

More than 500 Islamic scholars - reportedly including former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani - are expected to attend the three-day conference, which begins Wednesday.