CAIRO – Al-Qaida's most active branch in the Middle East called for more attacks on U.S. embassies Saturday to "set the fires blazing," seeking to co-opt outrage over an anti-Muslim film even as the wave of protests that swept 20 countries this week eased.
Senior Muslim religious authorities issued their strongest pleas yet against resorting to violence, trying to defuse Muslim anger over the film a day after new attacks on U.S. and Western embassies that left at least eight protesters dead.
The top cleric in U.S. ally Saudi Arabia denounced the film but said it can't really hurt Islam, a contrast to protesters' frequently heard cries that the movie amounts to a humiliating attack that requires retaliation. He urged Muslims not to be "dragged by anger" into violence. The head of the Sunni Muslim world's pre-eminent religious institution, Egypt's Al-Azhar, backed peaceful protests but said Muslims should counter the movie by reviving Islam's moderate ideas.
In the Egyptian capital Cairo, where the first protests against the movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad erupted, police finally succeeded in clearing away protesters who had been clashing with security forces for days near the U.S. Embassy. Police arrested 220 people and a concrete wall was erected across the road leading to the embassy.
No significant protests were reported in the Mideast Saturday; the only report of violence linked to the film came from Australia, where riot police clashed with about 200 protesters at the U.S. Consulate in Sydney.
In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Barack Obama paid tribute to the four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, who were killed in an armed attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city on Benghazi this week. He also denounced the anti-U.S. mob protests that followed.
"I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths. We stand for religious freedom. And we reject the denigration of religion — including Islam," Obama said.
"Yet there is never any justification for violence. There is no religion that condones the targeting of innocent men and women."
In Afghanistan, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack the night before by 20 insurgents on a sprawling British based in southern Afghanistan that killed two U.S. Marines. The Taliban said the attack was to avenge Muslims insulted by the film. It also said the attack came because Britain's Prince Harry is serving at the base, though British officials said he was far from the site of the attack and was unharmed.
Friday's demonstrations spread to more than 20 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. While most were peaceful, marches in several places exploded into violence.
In Sudan, crowds torched part of the German Embassy and tried to storm the American Embassy. Protesters climbed the walls into the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, torching cars in the parking lot, trashing the entrance building and setting fire to a gym and a neighboring American school.
Four demonstrators were killed in Tunisia, two in Sudan, one in Lebanon and one in Egypt — the first Egyptian protester to die in clashes with police since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi took up his post this summer. On Thursday, four Yemeni protesters were killed in protests that turned violent at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.
The Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most dangerous of the terror network's branches to the U.S., called the killing of Stevens "the best example" for those attacking embassies to follow.
"What has happened is a great event, and these efforts should come together in one goal, which is to expel the embassies of America from the lands of the Muslims," the group said. It called on protests to continue in Muslim nations "to set the fires blazing at these embassies."
It also called on "our Muslim brothers in Western nations to fulfill their duties in supporting God's prophet ... because they are the most capable of reaching them and vexing them."
The U.S called the Yemen al-Qaida branch the most dangerous threat after it plotted a series of attempted attacks , including the Christmas 2009 failed bombing of a passenger jet. It has suffered a series of blows since, including the recent killing in a drone strike of its number two-leader, Saeed al-Shihri. Yemen's U.S.-backed government has been waging an offensive against the group, taking back territory and cities in the south that the group's fighters seized last year.
So far, there has been no evidence of a direct role by al-Qaida in the protests.
U.S. and Libyan officials are investigating whether the protests were a cover for militants, possibly al-Qaida sympathizers, to carry out a coordinated attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and kill Americans. Washington has deployed FBI investigators to try and track down militants behind the attack.
The United States sent an elite, 50-member Marine unit to Yemen's capital to bolster security at the embassy there, which protesters broke into on Thursday and then tried again to assault Friday. A similar team was dispatched to Tripoli, Libya, on Wednesday after the deadly attack the night before on the Benghazi consulate.
But the Sudanese government said Saturday it had refused to allow a similar Marine deployment to the embassy in Khartoum. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti declined the request, saying Sudan is capable of protecting diplomatic missions, the state news agency said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Sudan's government "has recommitted itself both publicly and privately to continue to protect our mission." She said the U.S. has requested additional security precautions.
Later in the day, the State Department issued a travel warning for Sudan and Tunisia, ordering home non-essential personnel and family members of staff at posts in both countries over security concerns.
The department added that while Sudan's government has taken steps to limit the activities of terrorist groups, some remain there and have threatened to attack Western interests. The terrorist threat level remains critical, it said.
Elsewhere in the region, security was increased Saturday at several spots that had been targeted.
Police in Lebanon beefed up their presence around U.S. fast food restaurants Saturday, after angry crowds Friday set fire to a KFC and a Hardee's restaurant in the port city of Tripoli. In Tunisia, the U.S. Embassy compound and school were surrounded by police and army vehicles Saturday.
The protests were sparked by an obscure, amateurish movie called "Innocence of Muslims" that depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a pedophile. A 14-minute "trailer" for the movie, dubbed into Arabic, was posted on YouTube.
The top religious authority in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdel-Aziz al-Sheik, condemned the movie on Saturday but said it "will not harm" Islam or Muhammad.
"Muslims should not be dragged by wrath and anger to shift from legitimate to forbidden actions. By this, they will unknowingly fulfill some aims of the film," he said.
The head of al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, called on the United Nations to take a stand against hate speech, pointing out that the world body has done so in defense of Jewish people.
He said that while defending the Prophet Muhammad is a duty for all Muslims — it should be "not only through peaceful protests ... but also through reviving his teachings in all walks of life and spreading his moderate ideas."
In the U.S., the man behind the movie was questioned at a California sheriff's station early Saturday by federal probation officers investigating whether he had violated terms of his five-year probation. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula wasn't arrested or detained.
Federal authorities have identified Nakoula, a self-described Coptic Christian, as the key figure behind the film. A federal law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Thursday that authorities had connected Nakoula to a man using the pseudonym of Sam Bacile, who claimed earlier to be writer and director of the film.
Nakoula was convicted of bank fraud in 2010 and is banned from using the computers and the Internet as part of his sentence.
Contributing to this report were Sarah El-Deeb in Cairo, Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunisia and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington.