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Saudi clerics still encouraging jihad

Saudi Arabia has been waging an aggressive war on terrorism inside its borders since attacks there two years ago.  Yet, an NBC News investigation finds that some Saudi clerics are sending a very different messaging — encouraging attacks on Americans in Iraq.  NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

Inside Saudi Arabia today there’s a national campaign against extremism. Television ads,  billboards and even ATM machines drive home the toll of terror.

The Saudis recently hosted a worldwide conference condemning all terrorism and declaring they've cracked down.

"When imams preach intolerance or hate towards others, they are dismissed or punished," says Adel Al-Jubeir, a Saudi Arabian foreign affairs advisor.

Senior U.S. officials say the Saudis have changed significantly. Many clerics now speak out against jihad. Yet when it comes to killing Americans in Iraq, some send a very different message.

"I praise the jihad against the occupiers in Iraq," said Sheik Ai'dh Al-Qarni on Arabic-TV. "Throats must be split and skulls must be shattered."

Another cleric says suicide bombings are forbidden inside Saudi Arabia, but outside they can be "a good thing."

"There is nothing wrong with [suicide attacks] if they cause great damage to the enemy," said Sheik Abdallah Al-Muslih, also on Arabic-TV.

In fact, in November 2004, 26 Saudi clerics published a religious statement urging Muslims to wage holy war in Iraq. "Jihad against the occupiers is a must," said the statement. "[It is] not only a legitimate right but a religious duty."

NBC News went to Saudi Arabia to talk to some of the clerics, including Sheik Safar Al-Hawaly, who signed the letter. 

"It is the right of all the people in the world to push and to resist the occupier," he says.

Sheik Mosa al-Garni — who receives a government salary — told NBC News that jihad is justified because Americans are aggressors against a Muslim country.

"The terrorist in Iraq is the American Army," he says.

He urges young Saudis to go to Iraq to fight.

"If you are physically capable, don't hesitate. Go with God's blessings," he says.

The Saudi government acknowledges that none of the four clerics has been reprimanded or punished.

A Saudi dissident says Saudi leaders engage in double talk.

"The public message says, 'Terrorism is bad.' The private message says, 'Terrorism is bad only when it’s against us.' When it's against the infidels or other people, it's OK and even celebrated," says Ali Al-Ahmed with the Saudi Institute.

However, a senior Saudi official insists that these clerics represent "a vocal fringe minority," whose views do not represent the Saudi government or religious establishment. He says the government cannot control these clerics because most are not on the payroll, and they are exercising their rights to free speech.