In a show of nationalism and defiance, leading Sunni clerics in Iraq are criticizing Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's declaration of an all-out war against Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims.

Saleh Mahdi Abid spends most days at the al-Shuwaf Mosque in the Yarmouk district of Baghdad, calling Sunni Arabs to prayer.

But following three days of relentless car bombings and unprecedented violence, in which nearly 200 people were killed in Iraq, the Sunni cleric tells VOA he felt compelled to speak out against the terrorist actions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Hours after a horrific early morning car bombing on Wednesday killed more than 100 Shi'ite laborers looking for work, a posting on an Internet Web site attributed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said he was retaliating on behalf of the Sunni people in the northern city of Tal Afer, where a joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation was under way to rid the city of insurgents and foreign fighters.

The Web site posting declared an open war on all Shi'ites, whom Zarqawi accused of collaborating with the United States to wipe out Sunni Muslims.

Calling attacks against Shi'ites inhuman, Mr. Abid, the cleric, says Jordanian-born terrorist Zarqawi is not defending the interests of Iraqi Sunni Arabs when he unleashes terror on the Iraqi people.

While acknowledging that sectarian tension between Shi'ites and Sunnis is a growing problem, the cleric says Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is badly mistaken if he believes that all Sunni Arabs condone mass killings of innocent Shi'ite Muslims.

Mr. Abid is a member of the influential Baghdad-based Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars.

On Friday, the leader of the group, Sheikh Mahmud al-Sumaidaei, severely criticized Sunni Arab foreign fighters, who have joined the insurgency under the banner of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq group.

The Association of Muslim Scholars has been generally supportive of the homegrown insurgency in Iraq against the Shi'ite-led government and the U.S. military presence here.

The group has rarely spoken out against Iraqi Sunni insurgents, who have carried out attacks on the country's Shi'ite dominated security forces and ordinary Shi'ites in recent months. Shi'ite militias have also attacked and killed Sunnis in retaliation, stoking fears of a civil war.

But Sheikh Sumaidaei and other clerics say Iraqi Sunni resentment against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his foreign fighters is growing, because the al-Qaida-linked group has repeatedly used Iraq's sectarian tension and division to try to achieve its own goal of killing all Shi'ite Muslims in the region.

The latest attack on Shi'ites occurred Friday, when a suicide car bomb exploded at a Shi'ite Turkmen mosque in Tuz Khormato, a small town 210 kilometers north of Baghdad. At least a dozen people were killed and nearly two dozen wounded in the blast.

Shortly after the bombing, Iraqi police captured a man, wearing a suicide belt, heading toward a second mosque. The bomber told the police he was from Saudi Arabia.