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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 22:08 GMT 23:08 UK
Cleric warns against Iraq assault
By Sebastian Usher
BBC News

Sheikh Harith al-Dari at the meeting of religious leaders in Baghdad, Iraq
The cleric warns of dangerous consequences
One of the highest Sunni Islamic authorities in Iraq has issued a strong warning against any major assault on the rebel-held city of Falluja.

Sheikh Harith al-Dari called on Iraqis to boycott January's planned elections if Falluja is attacked.

His comments come after a meeting of senior Sunni clerics in Baghdad.

Speculation is mounting that the US army is preparing to launch an offensive to drive insurgents out of their Falluja stronghold.

Last week Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi ordered the residents of Falluja to hand over notorious militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his supporters, or face attack.

Yet there is little doubt that a full-scale assault would be a big political gamble.

Symbolic town

Sheikh Harith al-Dari, the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, voiced his fears after an emergency meeting with his fellow senior Sunni clerics.

"This conference made recommendations and took decisions that are enough for the occupation forces and the interim government to understand that storming Falluja is not an easy thing," he said.

"Storming Falluja will also lead to consequences and dangers that will affect both sides and it will not be easy as it was in other places.

"The Iraqi people view Falluja as the symbol of their steadfastness, resistance and pride. Falluja did not give any excuse to be stormed," he added.

The Association of Muslim Scholars is seen as one of the most important Sunni religious voices in Iraq.

In recent months, it has tried to secure the release of foreigners kidnapped by Islamic militants like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and has condemned the killing of hostages.

But its rejection of the US military presence in Iraq has always been adamant.

In the past it has warned that free and fair elections were impossible while US troops remained.





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