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Iraq War Sparks Jihad Debate in Saudi Arabia

Soon after the Iraq war began, government-appointed clerics in Saudi Arabia appeared on state television and declared that it wasn't worth shedding Muslim blood by joining a holy war to protect Saddam Hussein and his "infidel" regime.

But not everyone in the kingdom, it seems, has gotten the message.

An unknown number of Saudis, including some who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, have reportedly slipped into Iraq to join a guerrilla war against the U.S.-led coalition.

These Saudis, inspired by militant clergymen, may be among the 5,000 Arabs that Saddam's regime claims have come to Iraq to defend the regime.

Mohsen al-Awajy, an Islamic scholar who maintains close contact with extremists in the kingdom, said he has heard of hundreds who have gone to Iraq. But Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-in-chief of the Al-Watan newspaper said he did not believe the figure is that high.

In either case, Al-Awajy and other intellectuals have been approached by hundreds grappling with how to react to the war. Many youths, he said, simply feel anger toward the United States.

"It's like a volcano that's about to erupt," Al-Awajy said. "It's more than the country can tolerate."

Saddam's regime has, until recent years, maintained a largely secular image. But many Saudis feel linked to Iraq by language, race and religion and a shared animosity to the United States.

Within the kingdom, the war has sparked a debate on jihad -- a religious duty for Muslims that includes combat in defense of Islam, striving to be a better person, donating money to the poor and fulfilling obligations toward the faith.

Despite the injunctions of official clerics, a Saudi youth who claims to have gone to Iraq to fight has posted his diary on the Internet. The government, meanwhile, has denied a report that the suicide bomber who killed an Australian journalist in northern Iraq on March 22 was Saudi.

Many Saudis consider the U.S. and British troops invaders desecrating a Muslim country. Some draw parallels between this conflict and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which ended with the expulsion of the communists by Muslim fighters aided by the United States.

At the same time, Iraq's Baathist regime is reviled by many other Saudis who condemn him for the murders of thousands of Iraqis, starting three regional wars and flouting U.N. resolutions.

These Saudis ask whether fighting alongside Baathists is a jihad or a waste of life.

"It's a complex issue," Khashoggi said. "It's not clear cut like the Afghan one."

On state-run television, the message has been clear.

Fielding questions on a religious program hours after the war started on March 20, Saudi cleric Sheik Saud al-Funeisan warned youths not to listen to fatwas, or edicts, urging jihad issued by independent scholars.

Arab youths who fight alongside the Iraqis "will be stuck between the infidel Baathist party and the arrogant, infidel, oppressive and tyrannical enemy, America."

The kingdom's position is delicate, especially since reports that is quietly assisting the war coalition -- information the government has tried to suppress -- have appeared on the Internet.

A small band of militant independent scholars have urged jihad, arguing that Iraqis should not be held accountable for the actions of their ruler.

"Jihad against those armies and the civilians who are aiding them is a duty for all Muslims," Sheik Abdul-Hamid bin Mubarak said in one fatwa.

Khashoggi said such edicts by "Internet scholars" have influence only among a small audience of fundamentalists.

A group of independent, less extremist scholars, who have nationwide followings, have denounced the war but not sanctioned jihad.

As the debate continues, some Saudis have opted to perform jihad in their own way.

A group of women recently recited prayers that included the invocation: "I appeal to Allah to humiliate America. ... Vanquish the Christians and Jews, defeat them and rock them, plant fear in their hearts and create rifts among them."

Other forms of protest have included a trucking company's refusal of a $64 million contract to provide the coalition with trucks in the war; diatribes against the United States during a recent poetry reading; and a woman's urging people not to patronize the Starbucks coffee shop chain in Saudi Arabia.

"It will be the biggest victory for us if America was taught a lesson in this war," said Ibtisam Sadeq, an English literature professor.

Fowziya Abu-Khaled, a prominent writer and poet, said she is "with freedom but not one carried on missiles or jet fighters."

Her jihad, she said, has been to write a letter to the American people and a poem to the Iraqi people. It reads:

"An aggression that has borrowed innocent names,

"And twisted their meaning in mud,

"And stained their letters with the mud of war."