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Last Updated:  Sunday, 6 April, 2003, 00:33 GMT 01:33 UK
Leading cleric blames Saddam
Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi
The imam called for a swift end to the war
The chief Islamic cleric in Egypt has criticised the Iraqi president for not going into exile and sparing his country the trauma of invasion.

Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the grand imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, said Saddam Hussein's oppression of his people, and his wars against Iran and Kuwait, had been "terrorism".

But the man seen as one of the highest religious authorities for Sunni Muslims also accused the United States and Britain of waging an "unjust aggression" against the Iraqi people.

"Whoever attacks others, spilling blood, harming the other's honour and land is a terrorist," he said, referring to the US-led coalition.

[The resignation of Saddam Hussein] would have preserved the blood of many Muslims
Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi
Sheikh Tantawi said the war was not a crusade against Islam and condemned Saddam Hussein for not accepting a call from the United Arab Emirates to resign in order to prevent war.

"Had this initiative gone through, it would have preserved the blood of many Muslims and we would not be seeing the massacres under way against the Iraqi people," he said.

"The war against the Iraqi people must, must, must stop as soon as possible," he added at a news conference at the mosque.

Suicide 'allowed'

Though appointed by the Egyptian Government, Sheikh Tantawi is seen as the spiritual leader of about one billion Sunni Muslims - who include supporters of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Whoever wants to go to support the Iraqi people, I welcome that
Sheikh Tantawi
The cleric gave his blessing to any volunteers who wanted to help Iraqis fight the invaders, even potential suicide attackers.

"Whoever wants to go to support the Iraqi people, I welcome that, I welcome that, I welcome that," Sheikh Tantawi said.

"I say to him go with peace and I wish you well. We do not prevent anyone from going to help those who are facing injustice."

He added: "Martyr operations against the invading forces are permitted under religious law."


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