RIYADH, Sep 18 (Reuters) A leading Saudi cleric has publicly denounced Osama bin Laden, a rare move among clerics in his native Saudi Arabia who have avoided direct criticism of the al Qaeda leader.
Salman al-Awdah issued his ''open letter to Osama bin Laden'' on his Web site this week (www.islamtoday.net) and read it out on a show he presents on Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel MBC.
Western and Arab critics of Saudi Arabia's hardline religious establishment have often criticised senior clerics for failing to unequivocally distance themselves from the mastermind of 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 people.
''Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocents among children, elderly, the weak and women have been killed and made homeless in the name of al Qaeda?'' he said.
''The ruin of an entire people, as is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, ... cannot make Muslims happy,'' he said, attacking al Qaeda's policy of revolt across the region.
''Who benefits from turning countries like Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia into places where fear spreads and no one can feel safe?'' Al-Awdah said al Qaeda's actions had led Western governments to rein in Muslim charity work around the world and Arab governments to jail thousands.
The letter came just days after a new threatening message from Saudi-born bin Laden -- thought to be hiding in the frontier area between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- to mark the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on US cities.
'WHY NOW, SHEIKH?' Bin Laden used to single out al-Awdah as an independent cleric worthy of respect; but al-Awdah -- jailed in the 1990s for criticising the US-allied Saudi royals over corruption and pro-Western foreign policy -- has since toned down his rhetoric.
A Riyadh-based diplomat who follows Islamic affairs said this lessened the impact of Awdah's words.
One Saudi commentator said the letter was six years too late.
''Why now, Sheikh?,'' wrote Tareq al-Homayed in the pan-Arab Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat on Monday. ''He is distancing himself from bin Laden at a time when those who do so have nothing to lose and no price to pay.'' Awdah was one of 26 Saudi clerics who supported resistance to US forces in Iraq as ''jihad'', or holy war, during the US siege of Falluja in November 2004.
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