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Clerics fail to fire Muslim enthusiasm for Saddam

Wednesday, April 9, 2003

CAIRO Despite the encouragement of Sunni clerics, Muslim support for the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is said to remain weak.

Arab analysts and Islamic sources said the number of Muslims who responded to the Iraqi call for volunteers to fight coalition forces was much smaller than those who flocked to Afghanistan in the early 1980s in the war against the Soviet Union. They said about 5,000 Arabs have volunteered to travel to Iraq over the last month and join Saddam's militias.

"The Muslim youth's enthusiasm to join the war in defense of Iraq has been less than their enthusiasm to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Palestine," Issam Al Aryan, a Muslim Brotherhood member and former Egyptian parliamentarian, said. "The reason is that the Iraqi regime, through its brutality and oppression, lost its credibility in the eyes of Muslims."

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The number of Arab foreign volunteers in Iraq is also much smaller than those who traveled to Bosnia in the early 1990s to fight against Yugoslavia.

At least 10,000 Muslims from the Middle East were said to have been fighting in Bosnia and later in Kosovo.

The analysts said the main reason for the weak response was the failure of Iran to support the Saddam regime. They said Iran has blocked volunteers from its country and neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan from entering Iraq.

Al Aryan, in a column for the Saudi-owned Al Hayat daily, acknowledged the numerous religious rulings by Muslim clerics that approved suicide attacks against British and U.S. troops in Iraq. But the former Egyptian deputy suggested that the religious rulings were tepid and meant more to assuage Arab domestic opinion, which opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

So far, a range of prominent Sunni clerics have supported suicide missions against coalition forces. They include the Al Azhar seminary, the leading Sunni institution, the mufti of Syria and the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Mamoun Al Hudeibi.

"Whoever wants to go to Iraq to support the Iraqi people, the door is open," Al Azhar spiritual leader Sheik Mohammed Tantawi said. "And I say the door for holy war is open until the day of judgment."

Analysts said another factor that has dampened enthusiasm for the war in Iraq is the absence of training facilities for Muslim volunteers. They said that in the early 1980s Pakistan helped establish training camps for Muslim volunteers who wanted to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. They also cited massive subsidies by Saudi Arabia to facilitate the recruitment, transport and training of the volunteers.

"A holy war by militias needs preparation, which means that training camps will have to be made available for the volunteers in countries neighboring Iraq, as was the case in Pakistan during the holy war in Afghanistan against the Soviets," Al Aryan said. "Consequently, we are facing a situation where emotions are highly charged and calls for holy war are made, but cannot be carried out."

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