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In Yemen, 158 clerics vow jihad if US military intervention broadens

The clerics' promise to wage jihad if the US boosts its military presence was an indirect message from President Saleh's government, said a senior Yemeni analyst. The clerics also noted positively a US effort to dampen fears of deeper military intervention.

By Staff writer / January 14, 2010

Yemen's most influential Islamic cleric Sheikh Abdel-Majid al-Zindani, (c.), considered an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist by the United States, attends a conference in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, on Thursday. A group of prominent Muslim clerics is warning it will call for jihad, or holy war, if the US sends troops to fight Al Qaeda in Yemen.



Sanaa, Yemen

Prominent Islamist clerics in Yemen warned on Thursday that they would lead a jihad against any foreign forces that occupied their impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation to fight Al Qaeda militants there.

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Sending an explicit message to the US that it should not expand its already growing military and intelligence cooperation with Yemen to include ground forces, 158 clerics signed a statement to protest “dangerous developments and intrigues and conspiracies against the country.”

The clerics “absolutely reject” any foreign intervention, the establishment of foreign military bases on land or off the Yemeni coast, and the “killing of innocents” – a reference to the death of civilians in two US-backed air strikes against alleged Al Qaeda targets in December.

“After all this,” the statement said, “if there is any insistence from any foreign party or aggression or invasion against the country … then Islam considers jihad a duty to repel the aggression” – a point that drew shouts of “God is great!” from the clerics when it was read out loud in a Sanaa mosque.

Among those who spoke at the mosque was Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, the influential Yemeni cleric labeled a “global terrorist” in Washington who was once close to Osama bin Laden.

While the US has all but ruled out sending soldiers to Yemen, the clerics’ message reflected widespread fear of a much larger intervention – even on the scale of Afghanistan or Iraq.

“It is not just a popular message [to the US], but a message from the government in an indirect way,” says Nasser Yehia, head of the Yemen Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa. "I'm sure the Yemeni government had the same idea, but is afraid to state it. So it encourages popular groups to state it."

“If US support is restricted as now, then the government will not be afraid. Intelligence support is secret, for example, so won’t provoke any problem,” adds Mr. Yehia, who says anything more would be problematic. “I believe the West shouldn’t think about a big intervention, which would create a big problem. Only Iran and Al Qaeda would benefit from military intervention in Yemen.”

Clerics note US efforts to avoid stir

Since the Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen claimed responsibility for the plot by the Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Mutallab to blow up a US aircraft on Christmas Day, with explosives sewn into his underwear, top American officials have stated that Islamic militants in Yemen are a global threat and one of their top priorities.

While quiet American military and intelligence help and public declarations of support have surged in the past three weeks, President Barack Obama and his top commanders have also in recent days sought to dampen public fear of a much deeper military operation.

The clerics acknowledged that, in the course of the two weeks they held deliberations, the White House and Pentagon had all but ruled out a broad troop deployment.The statement noted that clerics “appreciate this attitude of the US administration and demand that it abide by this policy.”

Clerics: Our 'duty' is done

Clerics were confident they had done their “duty” to inform Yemenis. As they left the mosque, they were handed sticky-backed copies of the statement for posting.

“This shows the West that the people of Yemen are wise, and deal with all issues with logic and reason,” says Sheikh Ahmad Suleiman Ahyaf, head of the Islamic Studies Center in Sanaa, speaking after the meeting. “They want to show they can defend themselves. People reject any intervention.”

“This shows the Yemen government and people can resolve all their problems without the Americans,” said Sheikh Morad al-Qadasi, who like most clerics at the meeting wore a traditional curved dagger in his belt. “The statement supports the government, and encourages it to solve all the problems. We believe that Al Qaeda is not as huge as imagined in the media.