RIYADH, May 20: Leading Saudi clerics are now openly dissenting against a fatwa describing the war in Iraq as jihad and one of them has urged Saudi youths not to go to Iraq. In an interview with the Saudi Okaz newspaper, Sheikh Safar Al-Hawali — a radical scholar who had spent five years in prison for criticizing the government — also said that he had never called upon Saudis to join the Iraqi insurgency.

He referred to a statement he had issued, along with other prominent Saudi scholars, in November urging Iraqis to unite and expel the colonial coalition from their country. The statement had urged Muslims to stand by their brethren in Iraq, but did not call on them to join the fight there.

“Till today I do not know of any religious scholar or any person qualified to issue religious edicts who supports (Saudi) youths going to Iraq, because it is an illegal matter,” said Sheikh Al-Hawali. He stressed that no-one outside Iraq had the right to take part in the fighting there, not even ulema.

In recent years Sheikh Al-Hawali has acted as a mediator between the Saudi government and militants in the kingdom, in an effort to stop the wave of violence that swept Saudi Arabia since a series of attacks on residential compounds housing Westerners in May 2003. He rose to prominence in 1991 during the first Gulf War for his outspoken sermons.