BAGHDAD, Iraq — The new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq purportedly said Thursday in an audio message posted online that more than 4,000 foreign militants have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 — the first apparent acknowledgment from the insurgents about their losses.
The message also called for experts in the fields of “chemistry, physics, electronics, media and all other sciences — especially nuclear scientists and explosives experts” to join the terror group’s holy war against the West.
“We are in dire need of you,” said the man, who identified himself as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri — the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. “The field of jihad (holy war) can satisfy your scientific ambitions, and the large American bases (in Iraq) are good places to test your unconventional weapons, whether biological or dirty, as they call them.”
It was unclear why al-Masri would advertise the loss of the group’s foreign fighters, but martyrdom is revered among Islamic fundamentalists, and could be used as a recruiting tool. The Arabic word he used, “muhajer,” indicated he was speaking about foreigners who joined the insurgency in Iraq, not coalition troops.
“The blood has been spilled in Iraq of more than 4,000 foreigners who came to fight,” al-Masri purportedly said on the 20-minute tape. The voice could not be independently identified.
The statement followed the release of a U.N. report Wednesday that said fewer foreign fighters have been killed or captured in Iraq in the last few months, “suggesting that the flow has slackened.” The report, which cited several intelligence and security agencies, also said some fighters had expressed dissatisfaction they were asked to kill fellow Muslims rather than Western soldiers and that the only role for them was to be suicide bombers.
Analysts said al-Masri’s statement appeared aimed at burnishing the group’s image.
“It’s showing the level of dedication to their cause, the level of sacrifice jihadists are making. ... It’s almost showing a sense of strength and purpose to other people around world who might be thinking about joining the fight,” said Ben N. Venzke, director of IntelCenter, a U.S.-based group that provides counterterrorism information to the U.S. government and media.
In the audio message, al-Masri also offered amnesty to Iraqis who cooperated with their country’s “occupiers,” calling on them to “return to your religion and nation” during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which Sunnis began observing in Iraq on Saturday and Shiites on Monday.
‘Month of holy war’
Al-Masri’s message also urged Muslims to make Ramadan a “month of holy war” and urged insurgents in Iraq to kidnap Westerners. Al-Masri is believed to have succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who died in a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad in June.
Al-Masri also called for explosives experts and nuclear scientists to join his group’s holy war against the West. He said U.S. military bases in Iraq were “good places to test your unconventional weapons, whether biological or dirty.”
Al-Masri urged Muslims to escalate their attacks during Ramadan, which Sunnis began observing in Iraq on Saturday and Shiites on Monday. He called on insurgents in Iraq to capture Westerners so they could be traded for the imprisoned Egyptian sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks.
“I appeal to every holy warrior in the land of Iraq to exert all efforts in this holy month so that God may enable us to capture some of the Western dogs to swap them with our sheik and get him out of his dark prison,” the voice on the tape said.
Al-Masri, a Sunni Muslim, has been relatively silent since taking over control of al-Qaida in Iraq earlier this year — a sharp contrast with al-Zarqawi, who frequently issued audiotapes and even a videotape that showed his face a few weeks before his death.
Spike of violence
Meanwhile, police found 40 more bodies in the capital , and bombings and shootings killed at least 21 people in a spike of violence with the onset of Ramadan.
A car bomb exploded near a restaurant in central Baghdad, killing five people and wounding 34, police said. Many of the injured had serious burns and some were not expected to survive, police Lt. Ali Mohsen said at the Kindi Hospital.
Although the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan is under way, some Iraqis — including Christians — are not abstaining from eating meals during daytime hours.
Two Iraqi soldiers were killed and 10 more injured when a suicide car bomb slammed into a checkpoint in northeast Baghdad, police said. The attack came in the Shaab neighborhood, one that just been cleared by U.S. and Iraqi troops as part of a security drive in the capital.
Iraq’s government warned residents that it will soon restrict vehicle access into the capital as part of a security crackdown targeting militants and death squads.
Mahdi army splintering?
The violence also came amid reports from a number of senior coalition military officials that a large and powerful militia run by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been breaking apart into freelance death squads and gangs — some of which are being influenced by Iran.
Al-Sadr’s Mahdi army is one of the largest and most powerful militias in Iraq, along with the Badr Brigades, which were once the military wing of Iraq’s largest Shiite political group — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
“There are fractures politically inside Sadr’s movement, many of whom don’t find him to be sufficiently radical now that he has taken a political course of action,” said a senior coalition intelligence official who spoke to reporters in Baghdad on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak publicly on intelligence issues.
The official added that “there have been elements. I can think of about at least six major players who have left his organization because he has been perhaps too accommodating to the coalition.”
On Sept. 22, al-Sadr urged his followers not use force against U.S. troops, saying “I want a peaceful war against them and not to shed a drop of blood."
But despite the splintering, the official said during a briefing Wednesday that al-Sadr still retains a strong organization modeled after Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is led by Shiite cleric Hassan Nasrallah
“His model for his activity remains Hezbollah. He’s attempted to reorganize at the district level to accommodate a more expansive framework of political, economic, welfare, religious, as well as military,” he said. “This is a very functional organization.”
Concerns over militias
Al-Sadr’s ability to control his militia is important both to the U.S. military and an Iraqi government seeking to control and disarm militias and death squads blamed for thousands of sectarian killings in recent months.
The second-ranking U.S. military commander in Iraq also said it was imperative to disarm militias, but that the Iraqi government must decide when it should be done.
“We have to fix this militia issue. We can’t have armed militias competing with Iraq’s security forces. But I have to trust the prime minister (Nouri al-Maliki) to decide when it is that we do that,” said Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq.
Iran has also sought to influence rogue or splinter elements that have broken away from the Mahdi army while it is still able to, the senior intelligence official said.
“It wants control of surrogates, because remember, Iran only has a window of opportunity to influence Iraq before Iraq and its natural tendencies as both an Arab state and one who’s got a whole series of friction points with the Islamic republic will start to take order,” the official said.
On Wednesday, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said murders and execution-style killings were the No. 1 cause of civilian deaths in Baghdad. Much of the recent violence has been attributed to death squads, many of which are thought to be offshoots of Shiite militias like the Mahdi army.
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