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Terrorist leader raises specter of a long struggle

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's most feared terrorist leader urged his followers yesterday to be patient and prepare for a long struggle against the Americans, promising in an audiotape posted on the Internet that ''ferocious wars . . . take their time" but victory was assured.

Elsewhere, US troops launched raids around the northern city of Mosul, killing five suspected insurgents, in a bid to rein in guerrillas and safeguard the Jan. 30 national election. Iraqi forces sealed off main routes into Baghdad a day after a wave of car bombings.

The 90-minute message, purportedly from Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, seemed to be aimed at rallying his forces after the loss of their base in Fallujah and at marshaling support as Iraqis prepare for their first election since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

''Fighters who have taken the path of jihad have to realize the nature and the demands of the battle toward the required goal," the speaker said. ''This group has to be patient in the path that it has taken and . . . not to hurry victory. The promise of God will be fulfilled no matter what."

The authenticity of the tape could not be verified late yesterday. It appeared before President Bush was sworn in for a second term that begins under the shadow of a continuing insurgency in Iraq.

The speaker also acknowledged that a leading Al Qaeda commander in Fallujah, Omar Hadid, had been killed fighting the Americans when the city fell to a US-Iraqi assault. Hadid was thought to have escaped the fighting.

''Ferocious wars are not determined by the outcome of days or weeks," the speaker on the tape said. ''They take their time until it's time to announce the victory."

Zarqawi is the leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate that was responsible for kidnapping and beheading several foreigners, including Americans, before the fall of their Fallujah base. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for Zarqawi's capture or death, the same as for Osama bin Laden.

In a separate statement, Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for an explosion yesterday that injured five British soldiers and an undetermined number of Iraqis at a supply base in southern Iraq outside Basra. A Web statement said the attack was a suicide operation in retaliation for alleged British abuse of prisoners.

The authenticity of that statement also could not be determined, and the British military gave no reason for the blast. Three British soldiers are on trial at a British base in Germany for allegedly abusing Iraqi prisoners in May 2003.

In the audiotape, Zarqawi also denounced Iraqi Shi'ites for fighting alongside US troops, an apparent attempt to inflame sectarian tensions ahead of the vote. The elections have been embraced by majority Shi'ites but rejected by many minority Sunnis, who say it should be postponed because of the violence.

The speaker berated Shi'ites for fighting their Sunni countrymen in Fallujah ''with the blessing" of the most prominent Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

''They broke into the safe houses of God," the speaker said of Shi'ites, who comprise about 60 percent of the country's estimated 25 million people. ''They defiled them and they hung the photos of their Satan, al-Sistani, on the walls and they spitefully wrote, 'Today, your land; tomorrow it will be your honor.' "

Even as insurgents press attacks aimed at rendering the election a failure, a new public opinion survey suggests that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis continue to say they intend to vote. The poll, which was conducted in late December and early January for the International Republican Institute, found 80 percent of respondents saying they were likely to vote, a rate that has held roughly steady for months.

The 64 percent who said they were ''very likely" to vote was a dip of about seven percentage points from a November survey, while those ''somewhat likely" to vote jumped five points.

In Mosul, Army troops killed five suspected insurgents yesterday and provided security for Iraqi National Guardsmen who raided a mosque and recovered a cache of weapons, the military said. US troops also detained nine people and seized weapons in overnight sweeps in the city.

Later yesterday, insurgents shelled a Mosul hospital where US and Iraqi forces had taken up positions in an annex, hospital director Faris Hani said. Doctors and patients fled, and no casualties were reported.

Three Iraqi army soldiers were killed yesterday by a roadside bomb in the city of Samarra, the US military reported.

Material from the Washington Post was included in this report.

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