Kerry arrives in Saudi for key Gulf talks

Riyadh (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia early Thursday for talks with Gulf allies on Middle East turmoil and the battle against jihadists.

Kerry was to brief Gulf foreign ministers about his latest negotiations with Iran to seal a nuclear deal which the United States believes will make the region and the world safer.

He arrived from Switzerland where he spent three days in talks with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Sunni Gulf nations are wary about the growing rapprochement between Shiite-dominated Iran and Washington, which is seeking the deal to rein in Tehran's nuclear programme.

With instability sweeping much of the region from Syria to Iraq, Libya and Yemen, Kerry's talks in Saudi Arabia will focus on "things that we can do together to strengthen our joint security framework," a senior State Department official told reporters.

The so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany is trying to strike an accord that would prevent Tehran -- Riyadh's regional rival -- from developing a nuclear bomb.

In return, the West would ease punishing sanctions on Iran which insists its nuclear programme is purely civilian.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations belong to an international coalition brought together by the US to fight Sunni militants from the Islamic State (IS) group, which has captured a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria.

The jihadists have claimed widespread atrocities including the beheading of foreign hostages and Christians, and the burning alive of a caged Jordanian fighter pilot.

Saudi Arabia began air strikes against IS in September but a Western diplomatic source said the number of Saudi sorties is now "not as many as it has been before."

The kingdom has agreed to launch with the US a facility for training and equipping vetted members of the moderate armed opposition from Syria, under a long-planned effort to take on IS, also known as ISIL.

- Yemen's instability -

The jihadists as well as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army are fighting a civil war against President Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, which is supported by Tehran-backed Hezbollah troops.

Riyadh, supporting the rebellion, had been angered that the US appeared to sideline moves to reach a political solution under which Assad would give up power.

But the US official insisted: "We're working very closely in Syria with our partners in the Gulf to confront not only ISIL, but to make very clear that we believe that we won't see peace and security in Syria unless there is a change in the regime in Damascus."

Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia, has been a source of growing regional instability after Shiite Huthi militia seized power in the capital Sanaa in January.

Kerry charged last week that "critical" support for the militia by Iran had contributed to the collapse of Yemen's government.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are deeply suspicious of the Huthis, fearing they will take Yemen into Iran's orbit.

The US closed its embassy in Sanaa, and is now preparing to base its ambassador out of the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Washington is not planning to follow Gulf countries and move the embassy to the southern city of Aden, where President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi has sought refuge after escaping house arrest in Sanaa.

"We want to (be) very clear in saying that US policy supports a unified Yemen," the State Department official said.

Kerry will meet with new Saudi King Salman, following up on their first talks after the January 23 death of his predecessor Abdullah.

The top US diplomat was part of a heavyweight delegation led by President Barack Obama which held talks in Riyadh five days after Salman acceded to the throne.