Friday, November 10, 2006

BAGHDAD — The head of al Qaeda’s Iraq operations yesterday gloated in a new audio tape over the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and praised U.S. voters for punishing President Bush and the Republicans in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, in the first public statement by a senior al Qaeda figure since the vote, said in an Internet-posted recording that his group now had 22,000 armed fighters and reserves in Iraq and taunted Mr. Bush not to copy Mr. Rumsfeld and “flee the battlefield.”

Al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, urged the United States to stay in Iraq so his group would have more opportunities to kill American troops.

“We haven’t had enough of your blood yet,” he boasted. “We call on the lame duck not to hurry his escape the way the defense secretary did.

“We will not rest from our jihad until … we have blown up the filthiest house — which is called the White House,” al-Muhajir said.

The Egyptian-born al-Muhajir became al Qaeda’s point man in Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in June. The 20-minute recording could not be independently verified and White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to comment on its contents.

U.S. military officials separately announced the deaths of five more servicemen serving in Iraq. A total of 26 American troops have died so far this month.

Calling Mr. Bush a “coward” and the “most stupid president” in history, the al Qaeda leader also said, “The American people have put their feet on the right path by … realizing their president’s betrayal in supporting Israel. So they voted for something reasonable in the last elections.”

In neighboring Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also expressed satisfaction with the Democratic gains in the U.S. vote, calling them a boon for Tehran.

“The issue in these elections was not a purely domestic issue for America, but it is the defeat of Bush’s hawkish policies in the world,” the Iranian leader said in remarks to the ISNA news agency.

“Since Washington’s hostile and hawkish policies have always been against the Iranian nation, this defeat is actually an obvious victory for the Iranian nation,” the hard-line cleric added.

The comments by the Iraqi al Qaeda leader not withstanding, Iraqi army officials announced they had captured the Egyptian leader of an al Qaeda cell in restive Anbar province.

Acting on a tip, Iraqi soldiers descended on a building in the city of Rawah, 175 miles northwest of Baghdad, where they arrested local al Qaeda commander Abu Muhayyam al-Masri, whose name, like that of the group’s overall leader, is a pseudonym meaning, “the Egyptian.” Two top aides and nine other insurgents were also seized in the raid.

Rawah is located deep in Anbar province, where Sunni Arab insurgents routinely launch deadly attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces that show no sign of diminishing in numbers or intensity, more than three years after the U.S. invasion.

In other violence, six Iraqi soldiers were killed and 10 wounded when a suicide bomber drove his explosives-rigged car into an army checkpoint in the northern city of Tal Afar, the military said.

At least 59 Iraqi citizens were killed or found dead yesterday as the violence threatens to spiral into all-out civil war.

Health Minister Ali al-Shemari, a member of the movement of radical anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, repeated the Shi’ite-dominated government’s demands for a speedier U.S. transfer of authority to Iraqi forces and the withdrawal of U.S. troops to their bases, away from Iraq’s cities and towns.

“The army of America didn’t do its job. … They tie the hands of my government,” Mr. al-Shemari told reporters.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her first public comments on the U.S. election results, told a Singapore newspaper in an interview released late Thursday that the Bush administration was determined to complete the mission in Iraq despite the vote, even as it adjusted tactics and strategy to fight the insurgency.

Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney meet on Monday at the White House with members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, an independent commission widely expected to recommend major changes in policy in Iraq and the broader Middle East when it issues a report in the coming months.

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