- Associated Press - Sunday, July 22, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — The first online statement from the new leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq claims that the militant network is returning to the old strongholds from which it was driven by U.S. forces and their Sunni allies prior to the American withdrawal at the end of last year, and that it is preparing operations to free prisoners and assassinate court officials.

The audio identifies the speaker as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who became head of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010. It was posted late Saturday on a website regularly used by the militant movement to make statements.

Al-Baghdadi also invited Muslims to come to Iraq to join his movement and warned the United States that it would soon see militant attacks on its territory, although it is unclear whether he was referring to attacks by his Iraqi network or by other al Qaeda affiliates.

The statement comes as Sunni insurgents, now believed to be dominated by the ISI, step up attacks against Shiites, government officials and other targets, in what is seen as a bit to undercut the authority of Iraq’s state and revive sectarian conflict in the wake of the pull-out of the last American forces in the country in December.

There is little indication yet however that the large-scale fighting between sectarian groups that wracked the country in 2006 and 2007 will return, nor does al-Qaida appear to have restored the domination it once had over many Sunni communities in that period.

“I bring you good news: That we are starting a new phase in our struggle with a plan we named ‘Breaking the walls,’ and we remind you of your priority to free the Muslim prisoners,” he said.

“At the top of your priorities regarding targets is to chase and liquidate the judges, the investigators and the guards,” he said.

He urged tribal leaders to send their men to join al Qaeda as it returns to areas from which it withdrew — a reference to reverses the ISI suffered at the hands of U.S. forces and allied Sunni militias in 2007 and 2008.

“On the occasion of the return of the (Islamic) State to the regions it evacuated, I urge you to send your sons to join the ranks of the mujahideen in defense of your religion and honor,” he said. “The majority of the Sunnis in Iraq support al Qaeda and are waiting for its return.”

He said that Iraqis who allied with the government and the Americans could repent; reports that al Qaeda killed penitents were “lies.”

Al-Baghdadi said to the United States: “You will see the mujahideen (holy warriors) at the heart of your country, since our war with you has only started now.”

He urged Muslims to come to Iraq to join his fight. “I appeal to the youth and Muslim men everywhere on this earth to immigrate to us to consolidate the pillars of the Islamic State … The State’s camps and houses are open to any Muslim and Baghdad is the heart of the battle of the Sunnis against the Shiites. So rise up, you Muslim youth, because the battle needs fuel.”

Al-Baghdadi devoted almost half of the 33-minute speech to Syria’s uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad, member of a Shiite offshoot sect. The uprising is largely Sunni and fighters from al Qaeda, including Iraqis, are believed to have taken an increasingly active role in recent months.

“Our people there have fired the coup de grace at the terror that grasped the nation for decades … and taught the world lessons of courage and jihad and proved that injustice could only be removed by force,” he said.

He warned the Syrian rebels “not to accept any rule or constitution but God’s rule and Shariah (Islamic law). Otherwise, you will lose your blessed revolution.”

Al-Baghdadi became the leader of the group after Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who was no relation, was killed in an air and ground assault by a team of U.S. and Iraqi forces on April 18, 2010, together with the other top al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

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