'Zarqawi' tape chides clerics for silence over US invasions

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An audiotape said to have been recorded by the militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi accuses Muslim scholars of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Islamic fighters by their "silence" on the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week, two Sunni clerical leaders were murdered within 24 hours, and the tape, posted on an Islamic website, is seen as a threat by the Jordanian-born militant against the Muslim religious establishment.

Its publication coincides with a public show of division in Iraq's interim government. The Defence Minister, Hazem Sha'alan, said he could not guarantee the safety of voters or candidates in the elections scheduled for 30 January, and, anyway, the Iraqi people did not care about the poll.

The interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, and his American sponsors have insisted on holding the election and promised enough security to ensure it works. But Mr Sha'alan said: "You ask me as Defence Minister, will I be able to provide safety for candidates and voters? I say no, I have no plan until now. The Iraqi citizen doesn't know what elections are and doesn't know who the candidates are or who the voter is."

Mr Sha'alan, 57, an influential tribal leader with a background in economics and real estate, also referred to a "vile coalition" inside Mr Allawi's government which, he said, was obstructing efforts to fund the new Iraqi army and pay pensions to former soldiers .

The audiotape said to be by Zarqawi is addressed to the ulama, senior Muslim clerics. A voice says: "You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy ... You have quit supporting the mujahedin. 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.

"Instead of implementing God's orders, you chose your safety and preferred your money and sons. You left the mujahedin facing the strongest power in the world. Are not your hearts shaken by the scenes of your brothers being surrounded and hurt by your enemy?"

Zarqawi, leader of the al-Qa'ida-linked Tawhid and Jihad group in Iraq, is believed to have escaped from his headquarters in Fallujah beforethe US assault on the rebel stronghold. He is believed to be in the area known as the triangle of death in Babil province, south of Baghdad, where 5,000 US and British troops from the Black Watch have launched a fresh offensive, called Operation Plymouth Rock.

Mr Allawi said yesterday that the joint operation was aimed at clearing pockets of terrorists who want to hinder the reconstruction process.

The US military said five more bodies were found yesterday in northern Mosul, bringing the total found in the past week to 20.