CAIRO — Al-Qaida’s most active branch in the Middle East called for more attacks on U.S. embassies Saturday to “set the fires blazing,” seeking to co-opt outrage over an anti-Muslim film even as the wave of protests that swept 20 countries this week eased.

Senior Muslim religious authorities issued their strongest pleas yet against resorting to violence, trying to defuse Muslim anger over the film a day after new attacks on U.S. and Western embassies that left at least eight protesters dead.

The top cleric in U.S. ally Saudi Arabia denounced the film but said it can’t really hurt Islam, a contrast to protesters’ frequently heard cries that the movie amounts to a humiliating attack that requires retaliation.

He urged Muslims not to be “dragged by anger” into violence. The head of the Sunni Muslim world’s pre-eminent religious institution, Egypt’s Al-Azhar, backed peaceful protests but said Muslims should counter the movie by reviving Islam’s moderate ideas.

In Cairo, Egypt, where the first protests against the movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad erupted, police finally succeeded in clearing away protesters who had been clashing with security forces for days near the U.S. Embassy.

Police arrested 220 people and a concrete wall was erected across the road leading to the embassy.

No significant protests were reported in the Mideast on Saturday; the only report of violence linked to the film came from Australia, where riot police clashed with about 200 protesters at the U.S. Consulate in Sydney.

In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Barack Obama paid tribute to the four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, who were killed in an armed attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city on Benghazi this week. He also denounced the anti-U.S. mob protests that followed.

“I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths. We stand for religious freedom. And we reject the denigration of religion, including Islam,” Obama said.

“Yet there is never any justification for violence. There is no religion that condones the targeting of innocent men and women.”

Friday’s demonstrations spread to more than 20 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. While most were peaceful, marches in several places exploded into violence.

In Sudan, crowds torched part of the German Embassy and tried to storm the U.S. Embassy.

Protesters climbed the walls into the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, torching cars in the parking lot, trashing the entrance building and setting fire to a gym and a neighboring American school.