Leading Sunni Muslim cleric calls for "jihad" in Syria

DOHA (Reuters) - Leading Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi called on Saturday for holy war against the Syrian government after fighters from Shi’ite Lebanese group Hezbollah intervened to help President Bashar al-Assad.

His website said Qaradawi had “called on all those able to undertake jihad and fighting to head to Syria to stand by the Syrian people who are being killed at the hands of the regime and are now being killed at the hands of what he called the party of Satan”.

The call by one of the most prominent Sunni Muslim clerics underscores widening sectarian divisions in the region over the war in Syria. Hezbollah, which means party of God, has long been seen as a bulwark in the struggle against Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

Egyptian-born Qaradawi, chairman of the International Federation of Muslim Scholars, is based in Qatar and has been a vociferous supporter of the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world in the last two years.

At least 80,000 people have died in more than two years of fighting led by Sunni-Muslim rebels trying to oust Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Qatar and regional Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia have been supporting the rebels.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah last week confirmed his forces were fighting alongside Assad’s forces in the Lebanese border town of Qusair, saying he would not let Syria fall to those allied with the United States and Israel.

“Qaradawi said that God will pour his anger and curses on those who support Bashar and will take revenge from them, and swore that the Syrian people will be victorious against Hassan Nasr al-Shaytan (Satan),” referring to Nasrallah.

He also called on all Muslims in all countries to head to Syria if they were able to do that to defend the Syrian people.

“Those who could fight should go and fight,” his website said, adding that Qaradawi, who is in his late 80s, swore he would himself go and fight had he been able to do so.

Nasrallah became a hero in the Arab world after his forces helped push Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 and confronted the Jewish state in a short war in 2006.

But Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in the civil war in Syria, pitting Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against the majority Sunnis, has turned many against his group.

Last week, Bahrain’s foreign minister called Nasrallah a “terrorist”.

Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Jon Hemming