SAN'A, Yemen – Yemen's most influential Islamic cleric, considered an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist by the United States, warned the government on Monday against allowing "foreign occupation" of the country in the growing cooperation with the U.S. against the terror group.
Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani's comments reflected a deep mistrust among Yemenis of Washington's intentions as it ramps up counterterrorism aid and training for San'a to combat Al Qaeda's offshoot here.
Al-Zindani, a radical cleric who once associated with Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan, is highly influential among Yemenis and the government is careful to maintain at least his tacit support.
"We accept any cooperation in the framework of respect and joint interests, and we reject military occupation of our country. And we don't accept the return of colonialization," al-Zindani told reporters.
"Yemen's rulers and people must be careful before a (foreign) guardianship is imposed on them," he said. "The day parliament allows the occupation of Yemen, the people will rise up against it and bring it down."
President Obama said he does not plan to send American combat forces to Yemen, and San'a has said it will not allow such a deployment.
"I have no intention of sending U.S. boots on the ground in these regions," Obama said in an interview with People magazine to be published Friday.
U.S. military personnel are helping train Yemeni counterterror forces and gave Yemeni forces intelligence and logistical help in heavy airstrikes last month against suspected Al Qaeda hideouts that Yemen says killed dozens of militants.
Al-Zindani is a controversial figure in Yemeni politics.
The United States has labeled him a "global terrorist," alleging he helps fund and recruit for A Qaeda and that students from Iman University — which he heads — were involved in past attacks.
But Yemen's government courts his support. The deputy prime minister last week denied al-Zindani is a member of Al Qaeda.
Addressing a news conference held at his San'a home, al-Zindani denied U.S. accusations against him, saying "it's become well known among the people that a lot of lies come out of" Washington.
He also denied any knowledge of Al Qaeda's activities in Yemen. He also denied he had any influence on an American-Yemeni radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who is being hunted by Yemeni forces for alleged Al Qaeda links.
Al-Awlaki is a young cleric popular among extremists for his calls for jihad, or holy war, against the Americans. Yemeni officials say he may have met with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Yemen before the 23-year-old Nigerian allegedly tried to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. Al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen is accused of plotting that attack.
Al-Awlaki also had e-mail contact with the accused Fort Hood shooter before he allegedly opened fire at the military base in Texas, killing 13 people. Al-Awlaki later praised the attack, and he has also praised al-Zindani's writings in Internet speeches.
"I was never a direct teacher for Anwar al-Awlaki," al-Zindani said, his white beard dyed red with henna in the style of some Islamic hard-liners.
"I am general lecturer and a writer of books. If someone says they listened to my lectures or read my books, am I to blame if he then, say, divorces his wife, or if he attacks someone? If that's the case, then all teachers and professors should be accused," said al-Zindani, who also denied any connection to Abdulmutallab.
Al-Zindani, who often preaches in favor of holy war to defend the Muslim world, was careful not to directly criticize the Yemeni government's cooperation with the United States and avoided any comments that suggested a call for violence.
But he said San'a must regulate its counterterror partnership with Washington with written agreements approved by parliament. "The constitution says agreements must be put before parliament. I demand the implementation of the constitution," he said.
He sharply criticized a U.S.-backed Yemeni airstrike against a suspected Al Qaeda hideout on Dec. 17 in which dozens of civilians were reported killed. "Is this right? What about a government that calls in any force to strike whoever it wants in this way, without any restrictions?" he said.