RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) - Clerics in Saudi Arabia, a staunch U.S. ally and the country of Osama bin Laden's birth, dismissed Washington's assertions it observed Islamic rites in disposing of the al Qaeda leader's body in the Arabian Sea.
Bin Laden, shot dead by U.S. forces in a raid on a compound in Pakistan on Monday, was placed in a weighted bag and dropped into the north Arabian Sea from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, the U.S. military said.
But many Muslims in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf Arab region, including opponents to bin Laden's militant ideology, said the fact funeral rites were read for him did not diminish their shock at the way his body was disposed of.
"That is not the Islamic way. The Islamic way is to bury the person in land like all other people," said Saudi Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obaikan, an adviser to the Saudi Royal Court.
In the past if a person died on ship and could not be buried on land for days, "then they would drop him into the sea with a weight," he said. "Today the case is different. We have airplanes, freezers, and it is not necessary to get rid of the body in the sea in such a way."
Bin Laden did not die at sea. His body was flown out to the ship after he was shot dead in Abbottabad, near Islamabad.
Washington said bin Laden's body was treated with respect. He was reported to have been washed and covered in a white shroud in burial preparations that lasted nearly an hour, and religious remarks were recited before his body went underwater.
Issa al-Ghaith, a Saudi cleric and judge, said he believed Washington had made a mistake by burying bin Laden at sea, which he said was un-Islamic, adding it showed Americans "fear him even after his death."
In Yemen, the 54-year-old militant leader's ancestral homeland that is home to an active al Qaeda arm, critics said bin Laden's body should have been turned over to his family.
"It is not enough to do prayers over bin Laden so as to lessen the anger of his supporters or even ordinary Muslims," said Mohammed al-Ahmedi, a Yemeni journalist.
Washington said a sea burial was best because of time constraints, contending that transferring bin Laden's body to another country for interment could have taken too long and noting that Islamic tradition prefers a quick burial.
In reality, it was unlikely that Saudi Arabia would have allowed a burial on its soil, analysts say. His family, which became rich from the Saudi construction boom, has disowned him, and he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994.
Saudi Arabia, which was subject to a 2003-2006 al Qaeda attack wave before the campaign was quashed, said on Tuesday that "an evil has ended" with bin Laden's death, calling him an evil to himself, his family and Arab states.
Analysts said Washington may have also wanted to avoid any chance of having a known burial spot where sympathizers could visit and perhaps draw inspiration for future attacks.
"For them it is justified politically and psychologically. Because they don't want him to have a shrine," said Mustafa Alani, security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
"I think it is going to be an issue the way they handled the body for a good number of Muslims," said Alani.
But others supported the U.S. decision on his burial.
"If there were a body, too much fuss would be made out of making a martyr of him and people would try to find him, or go to his funeral," said Aya Abdullah, a Saudi in her mid-twenties.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif in Riyadh, Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Cynthia Johnston