updated 6/2/2006 8:55:32 AM ET 2006-06-02T12:55:32

The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq urged Sunnis to confront Shiites and ignore calls for reconciliation in a new audiotape posted on the Web, saying Shiite militias are killing and raping the Sunni Arab minority.

The tape was a four-hour sermon by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi against Shiites, denouncing their top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as an “atheist,” and saying the community had collaborated with invaders throughout Iraq’s history.

“Oh Sunni people, wake up, pay attention and prepare to confront the poisons of the Shiite snakes who are afflicting you with all agonies since the invasion of Iraq until our day. Forget about those advocating the end of sectarianism and calling for national unity,” al-Zarqawi said.

The authenticity of the audiotape could not be independently confirmed. It was posted on a Web forum often used by his al-Qaida in Iraq for messages and the voice resembled that of al-Zarqawi’s on other confirmed tapes from him.

A written statement said Friday’s tape was made two months ago and that the group had intended to post it then, but “circumstances” prevented it from doing so. The statement, posted with the video, did not elaborate.

Last message was April 29
It was the first message from al-Zarqawi since April 29, when he appeared in a video saying that any government formed in Iraq would be merely a “stooge” of the Americans. That video was the first time al-Qaida in Iraq had released images showing his face.

Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, has claimed responsibility for some of the most high-profile suicide bombings in Iraq and also for other attacks in Jordan, including the bombing of three hotels in Amman in November that killed 63 people.

In the video, al-Zarqawi denounced militias linked to Shiite political parties in the new government that many accuse of running death squads killing Sunnis in a wave of sectarian violence the past months.

“The Badr Brigades and Mahdi Army are storming the houses of Sunnis under the pretext of searching for the mujahedeen, and even if they didn’t find any, they kill men and arrest women, put them in prison and rape them and steal everything from the houses of the Sunnis,” he said.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have frequently accused al-Zarqawi of seeking to spark a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, and many of his group’s suicide bombings have targeted Shiite civilians and mosques. Al-Zarqawi follows a radical Salafi version of Islam that vilifies Shiism.

Focus on Sunnis
Much of Friday’s tape was aimed at rallying Sunnis — who make up the majority of Muslims in the Arab world but are a minority in Iraq — against Shiites across the Mideast and Iran, which many Sunni Iraqis deeply mistrust for its influence with the Shiite parties that now dominate Iraq’s government.

“There is no difference between Shiites of Iran and the Shiites in the rest of the Arab world either in Iraq, Lebanon. their beliefs are the same .. their hatred of Sunnis is the same,” he said, adding, “The roots of Jews and the Shiites are the same.”

“Anyone calling for reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites is either a man who knows the truth but is betraying his religion and his nation ... or a man who is ignorant and should be taught,” he said.

He said Shiite leaders in Iran and Lebanon — including the Hezbollah guerrilla movement — only pretend to confront Israel and the United States. He mocked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for “screaming and calling for wiping Israel from the map,” but doing nothing, referring to anti-Israeli comments earlier this year.

Al-Zarqawi had lowered his profile earlier this year, announcing in January that his group was joining an umbrella organization of insurgent groups called the Mujahedeen Shura Council. But his April videotape appeared aimed at putting the al-Qaida leader back in the spotlight. It showed dramatic images of him firing a machine gun in the desert and consulting with mujahedeen leaders, apparently to emphasize his control.

Among other attacks, U.S. officials believe al-Zarqawi personally beheaded American businessman Nicholas Berg, whose killing was shown on a videotape distributed by al-Qaida in Iraq in 2004.

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