Yemen clerics warn US to stay out or face jihad

Direct strikes by outsiders against al Qa'eda militants in the country would prompt call to war, they say.

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SANA'A // Yemen's association of clerics warned yesterday they would call for jihad in the case of foreign military intervention amid growing concern that the United States might carry out direct strikes against al Qa'eda militants in the country. "If any party insists on aggression, or invading the country or carrying out military or security intervention, then jihad becomes obligatory according to Islam," said a statement signed by 150 clerics, announced at a meeting of dozens of prominent religious leaders.

The clerics, led by Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, a hardliner labelled by the US as a "global terrorist", met amid heavy security at the historic al Mashhad mosque in Sana'a. The statement read that the clerics "reject any security or military agreement or co-operation [between Yemen and] any foreign party if it violates sharia law or damages the country's interests - [we also reject] setting up any military bases in Yemen, or in its territorial waters."

"This statement is a fatwa and for sure, I am ready for jihad to defend my country and Islamic religion," said Mohammed al Azab, a student who was present at the meeting. "Nobody has the right to interfere except the Yemeni security forces. We do not need any intervention." Carl Levin, the chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday urged his country's administration to consider targeting al Qa'eda militants in Yemen with armed drones, air strikes or convert operation, but not to invade the country.

The clerics' statement, copies of which were widely distributed in the streets of the capital, also voiced "strong rejection to any foreign intervention in Yemeni affairs, whether political or military". Barack Obama, the US president, said this week he had "no intention" of sending US troops to Yemen or Somalia. In the statement, the clerics welcomed Mr Obama's comments and said, "this stand by the US administration is appreciated and it [Washington] is required to be committed to such policy".

The US claims that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national who unsuccessfully tried to blow up a Northwest airlines flight over Detroit, Michigan, was in contact with al Qa'eda operatives in Yemen. The incident has caused great concern for the Obama administration about terrorist threats from Yemen. Yemen's government, backed by the US, has launched a number of strikes against alleged al Qa'eda militants in different parts of the country. Dozens of civilians were killed in an attack in Abyan province on December 17.

Al Qa'eda announced its responsibility for the attempted attack and said it was in retaliation for the government strikes. While the clerics' statement criminalised the killing of foreigners, they denounced the attacks on civilians and any killing of militants without putting them on trial. "Islam prohibits the killing of citizens, non-Muslim civilians, and any attacks against these groups are prohibited under Islamic law," the statement said.

Because of the increasing deterioration of the security situation in Yemen, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, called for an international conference to be held on January 28 "to counter radicalisation in Yemen". But the clerics said that any "guardianship" imposed on Yemen by the upcoming conference would be considered to be an "aggression against Yemenis". They said the conference should respect Yemeni sovereignty and should not interfere in Yemen's internal affairs.

Mr al Zindani, the rector of the Sana'a-based al Eman University, which is accused by the US of producing extremists through its radical teachings, said the US military presence in the Gulf of Aden is meant to control oil resources in Yemen and that the London conference is meant to interfere in Yemen. "We have been surprised that Britain - calls for this conference. Who has given you the right to do so? - this call is terrifying as it is a call for interfering in Yemen's internal affairs and imposing a sort of guardianship on Yemen," said Mr al Zindani, a highly influential cleric who once was associated with Osama bin Laden, during the meeting of clerics.

"[The conference] tries to promote the idea that Yemen is a failing state and if it fails, you should control the oilfields and the south-western coast," he said. Abu Bakr al Qirbi, Yemen's foreign minister, said on Tuesday that the upcoming international conference should not discuss internal issues like political reforms and said they would not accept "any instructions from anyone because this is an internal Yemeni matter."

Mohammed Ayesh, an independent political analyst based in Sana'a, said the clerics are one of the tools the government is using to push back against increasing rhetoric from the international community. "The government is using those clerics as an instrument to confront the pressure of the international community, as it is expected the Yemeni government will be questioned at the London conference on its counterterrorism policies," Mr Ayesh said. "There have been a lot of questions about the seriousness of and credibility of the Yemen government in fighting terrorism."

Mr Ayesh said that Mr al Zindani would not have made such statements without a green light from the government, which is providing him protection from the US. "The clerics' statement falls in line with the government, which has announced that any intervention will only generate more problems and complicate the situation. The government is pushing for an agreement with its western allies that they provide financial, military and training support without any direct interference," he said.