BAGHDAD (AP) â€” The leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq called Thursday for explosives experts and nuclear scientists to join his group’s holy war and help attack US bases around the country.
The audio message posted on the Internet came as at least 23 people were killed primarily in and around Baghdad and the bodies of 40 apparent victims of sectarian death squads were discovered in the capital.
The government announced that in an attempt to stem the suicide car bombings and other violence that has killed thousands it will soon lock down traffic access to Baghdad.
In the tape posted to a website that frequently airs Al Qaeda tapes and messages, the man, who identified himself as Abu Hamza Muhajir â€” also known as Abu Ayyub Masri â€” said 4,000 foreign insurgents had been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. The voice could not be independently identified.
Masri is believed to have succeeded Abu Mussab Zarqawi, who died in a US air strike north of Baghdad in June as head of the Al Qaeda-linked organisation.
Analysts said the public disclosure of the death toll â€” the first known statement from insurgents in Iraq about their losses â€” was likely a boast aimed at drumming up support.
“It’s showing the level of dedication to their cause, the level of sacrifice jihadists are making,” Ben N. Venzke, director of the Washington-based IntelCentre, which monitors terrorism communications, said in a telephone interview.
“In a strange kind of way, it’s almost showing a sense of strength and purpose in their cause to other people around world who might be thinking about joining the fight,” he said.
A report from the UN Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against Al Qaeda and the Taleban said fewer foreign fighters had been killed or captured in Iraq in the last few months, suggesting that the flow has slowed.
Still, the report, released Wednesday, said Al Qaeda “has gained by continuing to play a central role in the fighting and in encouraging the growth of sectarian violence, and Iraq has provided many recruits and an excellent training ground.” On the 20-minute tape, Masri called for experts in the fields of “chemistry, physics, electronics, media and all other sciences â€” especially nuclear scientists and explosives experts” to join his group’s jihad, or holy war against the West.
“We are in dire need of you,” he said.
“The field of jihad 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.” He also proclaimed an amnesty for Iraqis who cooperated with their country’s “occupiers” and wanted to “return to your religion and nation” during Ramadan, which officially began Monday in Iraq, and urged insurgents to capture as many Westerners as they could during the holy month.
Attacks in the capital on Thursday included a car bomb that killed five and wounded another 34 after it exploded near a restaurant in the city centre, and a suicide car bomb attack on a military checkpoint that killed two Iraqi soldiers and injured 10 more.
One more person was killed and 24 more injured in two mortar attacks on residential areas in northern Baghdad.
The 40 bodies found all showed signs of torture, had been shot, and had their hands and feet bound, police Lt. Thayer Mahmoud said.
The apparent sectarian slayings comes amid reports from a number of senior coalition military officials that a large and powerful armed faction run by Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr has been breaking apart into freelance death squads and gangs.
Sadr’s Mehdi Army is one of the largest and most powerful groups in Iraq, along with the Badr Brigades â€” 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 organisation because he has been perhaps too accommodating to the coalition.” Last Friday, Sadr urged his followers not use force against US troops, saying: “I want a peaceful war against them and not to shed a drop of blood.
As part of the Baghdad security plan crackdown on sectarian groups, known as Operation Together Forward, US and Iraqi troops have been going neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood clearing buildings.
The operation has not yet made it to Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum of about two million where Sadr draws much of his support, but it will not be left out, the intelligence official said.
“The Baghdad security plan will cover Baghdad,” the official said. “I didn’t say Baghdad minus, I said Baghdad.” Government spokesman Ali Dabagh indicated another part of the plan, to funnel all vehicular traffic into Baghdad through 28 checkpoints, would begin soon.
“The gaps between natural barriers such as Tigris River and canals will be filled with artificial barriers in order to control and observe any threats against Iraqis,” he said. “This thing would lead to traffic jams for people entering Baghdad, we hope that our people will understand the reasons behind this act designed to protect them.” He refused to give a date for when the operation, but Brig. Qassim Mussawi, spokesman for the prime minister’s military office, said it could be any day, but wouldn’t be specific for security reasons.
“It could tomorrow or in one or two months, it could be start at any time” he told the AP.Â