updated 11/7/2004 4:43:20 AM ET 2004-11-07T09:43:20

Prominent Saudi religious scholars urged Iraqis to support militants waging holy war against the U.S.-led coalition forces as American troops prepared Saturday for a major assault on the insurgent hotbed of Fallujah.

The 26 Saudi scholars and preachers said in an open letter to the Iraqi people that their appeal was prompted by “the extraordinary situation through which the Iraqis are passing which calls for unity and exchange of views.” The letter was posted on the Internet.

“At no time in history has a whole people been violated ... by propaganda that’s been proved false,” Sheik Awad al-Qarni, one of the scholars, told Al-Arabiya TV.

“The U.S. forces are still destroying towns on the heads of their people and killing women and children. What’s going on in Iraq is a result of the big crime of America’s occupation of Iraq.”

In their letter, the scholars stressed that armed attacks by militant Iraqi groups on U.S. troops and their allies in Iraq represent “legitimate” resistance.

Appeal aimed at Iraqis
The scholars were careful to direct their appeal to Iraqis only and stayed away from issuing a general, Muslim-wide call for holy war. They also identified the military as the target, one that is considered legitimate by many Arabs who view U.S. troops and their allies as occupiers.

The independent scholars — some of whom have been criticized in the past for their extremist views — apparently did not want to antagonize the Saudi government, a U.S. ally, or appear to be flouting its efforts to fight terrorism.

Saudi Arabia has sealed off its long border with Iraq and bars people from crossing into that country. Its most senior clerics issued a statement last year saying the call for jihad — or holy war — should only come from the ruler and should not be based on edicts issued by individual clergymen.

Saudi officials did not comment on the latest statement.

The clerics’ appeal came as U.S. troops, backed by air and artillery power and Iraqi security forces, were gearing up for a major assault on Fallujah.

The clerics issued a fatwa, or religious edict, prohibiting Iraqis from offering any support for military operations carried out by U.S. forces against insurgent strongholds.

“Fighting the occupiers is a duty for all those who are able,” the letter said. “It is a jihad to push back the assailants. Resistance is a legitimate right. A Muslim must not inflict harm on any resistance man or inform on them. Instead, they should be supported and protected.”

Besides al-Qarni, the prominent scholars signing the letter included Sheik Safar al-Hawali, Sheik Nasser al-Omar, Sheik Salman al-Awdah and Sheik Sharif Hatem al-Aouni.

Al-Hawali, who was jailed in the 1990s for five years without trial because he criticized U.S. involvement in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, once was close to Saudi-born al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He opposed the presence of U.S. troops in the kingdom.

His name appeared this month on a list issued by a group of Arab intellectuals seeking to prosecute prominent clerics for encouraging terrorism.

The scholars said inter-Iraqi fighting would cause “great damage to the Iraqis and give a free service to the Jews who are infiltrating into Iraq and to the coalition forces which exploit differences to consolidate their domination.”

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest cities, has launched a campaign against militants. The crackdown began after al-Qaida-affiliated operatives attacked three residential compounds in Riyadh in May 2003 and killed dozens of people, bringing terrorism to the kingdom for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks.

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