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SANA, Yemen — As thousands of demonstrators for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh took to the streets on Tuesday, a cleric who is a former mentor of Osama bin Laden joined them to call for the replacement of the government with an Islamic state.
The cleric, Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, has been on the United States Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated global terrorists” since 2004, suspected of fund-raising for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. His call was a marked contrast to the message of the rebellions that brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and now threaten the rulers of Libya, Bahrain, Oman and, to this point,Yemen, where uprisings have been seen as secular and inspired by democratic goals.
In the past, he has publicly opposed terrorism, if not jihad, or holy war, and his word as a spiritual leader carries considerable political and moral weight in Yemen.
Mr. Zindani’s appearance coincided with an unusual display of anti-American sentiment by Mr. Saleh, who accused Washington and Israel of fomenting unrest to destabilize the Arab world — an accusation that seemed more remarkable because the United States has been Mr. Saleh’s most powerful Western backer during his three decades in power.
Mr. Zindani spoke on an open-air stage before several thousand anti-government protesters, guarded by his own private security force of 10 men carrying AK-47’s and shielded from the scorching sun by two umbrellas wielded by aides. He called for Mr. Saleh to step down and described the fervor for reform as an opportunity. “An Islamic state is coming,” he said, drawing cries of “God is great” from some in the crowd.
He said Mr. Saleh “came to power by force, and stayed in power by force, and the only way to get rid of him is through the force of the people.”
For many years, he maintained ties with Mr. Saleh even though he was a founder of the Islamic opposition Islah Party.