NEW: Speaker calls on fighters to "offer the head of an American as a gift" to Bush
NEW: Speaker also calls for attacks on members of Iraqi awakening councils
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatens "war" against Iraqi government
Al-Sadr turns Basra offices over to Iraqi Security Forces
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- A man claiming to be the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq mocked the death toll of American troops and urged his fighters to launch an offensive against U.S. forces in the next few weeks
The speaker was identified as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, on several Islamist Web sites that posted the recording.
"The reason I give this speech is that the enemy declared -- even though it might be lying -- that its death toll in Iraq has reached 4,000," he said.
"So we call upon our heroes ... to ask every group within a month from the time it hears this, to offer the head of an American as a gift to the deceitful [President] Bush," he continued.
As of Saturday, 4,036 U.S. troops had died in the Iraq war.
The speaker also called for attacks on members of Iraqi awakening councils, a movement of predominantly Sunnis who have joined forces with the U.S. and Iraqi governments in battling Islamic jihadists loyal to al Qaeda in Iraq.
Also Saturday, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to "declare a war" unless U.S. and Iraqi forces stop their assaults on his followers.
"I'm giving the last warning and words to the Iraqi government," al-Sadr said in a statement on a loyalist's Web site.
"They should take the road of peace and drop the violence that they use with their people. Otherwise, they will be like the destructive [Saddam Hussein] government."
The cleric also assailed the United States, saying, "From the other side, the occupier made us targets for his planes, tanks, mortars and his deceptive policy by demanding me not to stand against the Iraqi government, which -- if it weren't for us -- it would not exist.
"It is like the occupier would ignore the fact that his army is standing against the government, to prevent it from being an independent government with full sovereignty."
The warning was a reminder of al-Sadr's bloody rebellions in 2004 against U.S. forces in Najaf and Baghdad.
Al-Sadr recently renewed for six months the cease-fire he imposed in August on his Mehdi Army militia, a move that the U.S. military has credited with helping reduce violence across Iraq.
But an uprising like the one al-Sadr threatened Saturday would ultimately fuel inter-Shiite fighting through Sadr City and other Shiite communities.
Intense fighting between Iraqi security forces and al-Sadr's Mehdi Army continued Saturday in the southern city of Nasiriya and in Sadr City, the cleric's Baghdad stronghold.
Twelve people were killed in overnight fighting Friday into Saturday between Iraqi security forces and the Mehdi Army in Sadr City, an Interior Ministry official said. Six dozen people were wounded.
In Nasiriya, sporadic clashes spilled into Saturday, leaving four police officers and 16 militia members dead, the ministry official confirmed. The clashes prompted authorities to impose a curfew in the city Saturday.
In another southern city, Diwanyia, which witnessed deadly fighting between Iraqi forces and the Mehdi Army last month, officials discovered 14 decapitated bodies. An interior ministry official said the bodies appear to be a few days old.
Meanwhile, Iraqi troops began a new phase of the security operation launched March 25 by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, dubbed Charge of the Knights. The operation aims to clear militants from their strongholds in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a spokesman for the British army said.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Posted by Bill Corcoran at 2:05 AM