BAGHDAD - An Iraqi prayer leader on Friday urged Muslims across the world to
rally behind Iraq in the face of U.S. threats which he said were tantamount to
waging war on Islam.
"America does not target only Iraq, it targets Islam...This is a war against Islam," Sheikh Abdul-Ghafour al-Qaisi said during Friday prayers at Baghdad's Grand Imam mosque.
"Muslims must show their strength, cooperation and solidarity in the face of this evil and this aggression," he said in a sermon broadcast live on Iraqi television.
The cleric said the Iraqi people were firmly behind President Saddam Hussein.
"Saddam is Iraq and Iraq is Saddam," he said.
President Bush wants Saddam ousted. He accuses Iraq of developing weapons of mass destruction and has been hearing proposals from Pentagon officials for possible military action.
In a defiant address to the nation in Thursday, Saddam warned potential invaders they would be "digging their own graves" if they attacked Iraq.
The United States branded the speech irrelevant and the United Nations said it gave no rise to optimism that Iraq would admit U.N. arms inspectors, seen as key to avoiding a possible war.
Thousands of Iraqi civilians clad in military fatigues and clutching assault rifles have paraded in Baghdad this week, vowing to defend Saddam to the death.
Qaisi called on scholars of Islam everywhere to join the struggle.
"We appeal to you from Baghdad, from Iraq ... to stand on the side of right and issue your fatwas (religious edicts) against this brutal force," he said.
In Washington, representatives of six exiled Iraqi opposition groups will open talks with U.S. officials on Friday on ways to oust Saddam. They will also hold talks with Vice-President Dick Cheney, currently on vacation at his home in Wyoming, by video link-up on Saturday.
The session with Cheney is a measure of the importance Washington is attaching to the Iraqi opposition after years of dismissing it as divided and ineffective.
Opposition groups have urged Bush not to try to topple Saddam without a clear plan of what would replace him. Key U.S. allies and Arab governments have also warned against a military strike.
Bush said this week he has not ruled out a diplomatic solution but the White House said there was nothing new in Saddam's speech, dismissing it as bluster from an isolated dictator.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Saddam did not "give an inch" on the
return of weapons inspectors to Iraq and gave no cause for optimism, unless there
were "unforeseen developments."
© 2002 Reuters Ltd