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Iran's supreme leader urges Muslims to defend Gazans

December 29, 2008|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Iran's highest political and religious authority made a provocative appeal Sunday to Muslims worldwide, saying "true believers" were "duty-bound to defend" Palestinians suffering under two days of Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip.

But supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's message fell short of a call to arms amid speculation about how Tehran and other allies of Hamas would respond to the attack on the Islamic militant group's facilities in the densely packed coastal enclave. It also did not meet the definition of a fatwa, or religious edict.

"All true believers in the world of Islam and Palestinian fighters are duty-bound to defend the defenseless women and children in Gaza Strip, and those giving their lives in carrying out such a divine duty are martyrs," Khamenei said in a statement, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

In mostly Shiite Muslim south Beirut, meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, addressing a large crowd by videoconference, likened the offensive to the monthlong 2006 war between Israel and his group's guerrilla forces. Israel's political leaders and military were widely criticized at home after that conflict as having failed to cripple Hezbollah or improve security in northern Israel.

"The same choices are offered, the same battle and hopefully the same result," said Nasrallah, who is a spiritual disciple of Khamenei.

Still, with thousands of United Nations troops in southern Lebanon acting as a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel, his remarks were tempered. He made no commitment to intercede on behalf of Palestinians or Hamas, instead calling on Arabs to take to the streets. But he also stressed that he was not calling for popular uprisings.

The Gaza offensive continued to have consequences throughout the region, with large demonstrations staged across the Arab world. Yemen's official Saba news agency reported that nearly 1 million people turned up in the capital, Sana, for a protest. Television footage of the rally showed a huge crowd stretching deep into the horizon.

A Syrian official said his government was canceling Turkish-brokered Middle East peace talks because of Damascus' anger about the Gaza offensive. Syria shelters some members of the Hamas leadership and is strategically allied with Iran and Hezbollah.

"The Israeli aggression in Gaza has closed the door on the Syrian-Israeli indirect talks," the official told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several lawmakers in Jordan, one of the few Arab countries that has a peace treaty and diplomatic relations with Israel, burned the flag of Israel in the parliamentary chamber to the applause of their colleagues. The act was broadcast repeatedly on Arab news channels.

Egypt has come under fire for its role in sealing off Gaza, with which it shares a border, and for allegedly collaborating with Israel, with which it has a peace treaty. Nasrallah accused some Arab leaders of "asking the Israelis to destroy Hamas."

An editorial in Cairo's semiofficial Al Ahram daily rejected the allegation.

"Egypt's historic and consistent position regarding the Palestinian question and its determination to defend the rights of the Palestinian people were well expressed in the statement made by the presidency which condemned the Israeli attack on Gaza," the editorial said.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ziad Haidar in Damascus and Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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