Muslim cleric calls for jihad against Assad regime, calls Hezbollah 'party of Satan'

Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi, pictured in his native Egypt in February 2011.

An influential Sunni Muslim cleric has called for holy war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, urging that "every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that make himself available."

Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi called Shia Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which this weekend amassed a force of thousands in Aleppo to fight Syrian rebels, the "party of Satan" at a rally in Doha on Friday night. Once a Hezbollah supporter, the cleric now accuses the group of serving the Iranian regime in a sectarian war against Sunnis.

"Iran is pushing forward arms and men, so why do we stand idle?" Qaradawi asked, noting that he was not targeting all Shia. "Now we know what the Iranians want... They want continued massacres to kill Sunnis."

Shia-led Iran's alliance with Assad, a member of the Shia sect of Alawites, is opposed by the Sunni-led governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey among others supporting the rebels. As the anti-Assad uprising has devolved into a civil war between Sunnis and Shia, war and politics across the region have increasingly moved in the same direction.

"Nothing has helped make the Sunni-Shia narrative stick on a popular level more than the images of Assad — with Iranian help — butchering Sunnis in Syria," Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told the New York Times.

Iraq and Lebanon have been particularly hard hit by intra-Islamic violence, while last week Iran cut its funding to Palestine's Hamas for supporting Assad's opposition. And Sunnis in Lebanon have begun to turn against Hezbollah for favoring the country's Shia, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

Sheikh Qaradawi, 86, is a prolific broadcaster who fled his native Egypt for Qatar in 1961 after repeated imprisonment due to his close connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. He returned just after Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February 2011 to call for "a new government without any of these faces whom people can no longer stand.”

The cleric remains an intellectual leader of the Brotherhood and hosts a popular religious program on al-Jazeera TV that attracts an estimated 60 million viewers. He was barred from entry by the American and British governments after calling for violence against Israeli and US forces in Iraq. Qaradawi is a fierce critic of Israeli Zionism and a pronounced anti-Semite.

"We believe that the battle between us and the Jews is coming," he wrote in a book called Fatawa on Palestine published in 2003. "Such a battle is not driven by nationalistic causes or patriotic belonging; it is rather driven by religious incentives." The name of one of the book's chapters is "The Judgment Day Will Not Occur Unless You Fight Jews.”

Qaradawi's fatwas, or religious decrees, regarding Israel and Palestine have riled some Palestinian leaders, as did his recent visit to the Gaza Strip. Though warmly embraced by Hamas, the cleric's incendiary rhetoric against Israel worries secular Palestinian leaders working to neutralize the influence of Hamas' militancy.