(AP) BAGHDAD, Iraq – An audiotape purportedly made by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi lashed out Wednesday at Muslim scholars for not speaking out against U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying they have “let us down in the darkest circumstances.”
Al-Zarqawi, who leads the feared terror group al-Qaida in Iraq, is believed to have escaped from his headquarters in the insurgent-held stronghold of Fallujah during the massive U.S.-led assault earlier this month.
Al-Zarqawi addressed his comments to the “ulama” — religious Muslim scholars — on the tape posted Wednesday on the Internet. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.
“You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy… You have quit supporting the mujahedeen,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of the nation’s sons are being slaughtered at the hands of the infidels because of your silence.”
“You made peace with the tyranny and handed over the countries and the people to the Jews and Crusaders. … when you resort to silence on their crimes, when you refused to hold the banners of Jihad and Tawhid, and when you prevented youth from heading to the battlefields in order to defend the religion,” he said.
“Instead of implementing God’s orders, you chose your safety and preferred your money and sons. You left the mujahadeen facing the strongest power in the world,” he said. “Are not your hearts shaken by the scenes of your brothers being surrounded and hurt by your enemy?”
It was unclear whether his message was intended as a direct threat against religious scholars.
This week, two Sunni clerics who were part of an influential Sunni group that openly called for a boycott of Jan. 30 national elections because of the U.S. offensive against Fallujah were assassinated by gunmen.
On Tuesday, Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi, was killed as he left a mosque after dawn prayers in the town of Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
His assassination occurred a day after another prominent Sunni cleric was killed in the northern city of Mosul — Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, who was the brother of the association’s spokesman. It was unclear whether those two attacks were related.
The audio message appeared as U.S. and Iraqi security forces continued their search for al-Zarqawi after reports that he was in the region north of Baghdad.The U.S. has placed a $25 million bounty on his head.
His group, formerly named Tawhid and Jihad, is believed responsible for dozens of deadly bombings and gruesome beheadings of foreign hostages.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, militants attacked Iraqi National Guard forces, killing one soldier and a civilian in the drive-by shooting, the military said Wednesday.
The attackers struck after sundown Tuesday, firing from their car on Iraqi forces helping a civilian with his vehicle, the military said in a statement.
Another Iraqi guardsman suffered injuries in the incident, the military said. Kirkuk is about 180 miles north of Baghdad.
The release of the purported al-Zarqawi tape came a day after thousands U.S. Marines, British troops and Iraqi forces began an offensive aimed at clearing a swath of insurgent hotbeds south of Baghdad.
Tuesday’s series of raids and house searches was the third large-scale military operation this month aimed at suppressing Iraq’s Sunni Muslim insurgency ahead of crucial elections set for Jan. 30.
The assault aims to stem an increase of violence in an area that has been notorious for months as a danger zone. Car bombings, rocket attacks and ambushes have surged in recent weeks — likely in part due to guerrillas who slipped out of the militant stronghold of Fallujah, according to commanders.