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Leading Sunni Cleric Calls for Holy War in Syria

Egyptian Cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, gives a speech during Friday prayers, before a protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at Al Azhar mosque in old Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 28, 2012.
A leading Sunni Muslim cleric has called on Sunnis from across the Middle East to go to Syria to fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamist based in Qatar, fanned sectarian flames in the region Saturday by telling his followers to support rebels trying to topple the Assad government.

Al-Qaradawi, whose television broadcasts are seen by millions, denounced Assad's Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam - and referred to Iranian-backed Shi'ite Hezbollah forces fighting alongside Assad loyalists as belonging to "the party of Satan."

Al-Qaradawi's call came as activists reported new fighting in the western Syrian border town of Qusair between rebels and government forces.

The two-week fight for the beleaguered town drew new warnings Saturday from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warned that all parties will be held accountable for atrocities against civilians in the region.

Near Qusair on Saturday, Western and Lebanese news organizations reported cross-border rocket fire striking a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon's Baalbek area.

Beirut's Daily Star newspaper reported more than 16 rockets hit the area late Friday and early Saturday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Sectarian tensions on Syria's western border rose sharply in mid-May, when Lebanese-based Hezbollah fighters were reported to have joined forces with Assad loyalists in a push against rebels in and near Qusair.

The town has since become one of the war's major political and military flashpoints, and the focus of Western concerns over the fates of hundreds of civilians believed trapped there.