BAGHDAD -- Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, in an audiotape released yesterday, called for nuclear scientists to join his group's holy war and urged insurgents to kidnap Westerners so they could be traded for a blind Egyptian sheik who is serving a life sentence in a US prison.
The speaker, who identified himself as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir -- also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also said that more than 4,000 foreign militants have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. It was the first known statement from the insurgents about their death toll.
The fugitive terrorist chief said experts in the fields of ``chemistry, physics, electronics, media and all other sciences -- especially nuclear scientists and explosives experts" should join his group's jihad, or holy war, against the West.
``We are in dire need of you," said the speaker. ``The field of jihad can satisfy your scientific ambitions, and the large American bases [in Iraq] are good places to test your unconventional weapons, whether biological or dirty, as they call them."
The 20-minute audio was posted to a website that frequently airs Al Qaeda messages. The voice could not be independently identified, but it was thought to be Masri. He is believed to have succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who died in a US airstrike north of Baghdad in June, as head of the Al Qaeda-linked organization.
Yesterday's message focused attention on Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a 68-year-old Egyptian cleric who was convicted in 1995 of seditious conspiracy for his advisory role in a plot to assassinate Egypt's president and blow up five New York City landmarks including the United Nations. Abdel-Rahman is considered the leader of Egyptian Islamic militants, and the 1993 World Trade Center conspirators were known to have attended his lectures.
``I appeal to every holy warrior in the land of Iraq to exert all efforts in this holy month so that God may enable us to capture some of the Western dogs to swap them with our sheik and get him out of his dark prison," said Masri, who is also Egyptian.
It was unclear why Masri would advertise the loss of the group's foreign fighters, but martyrdom is revered among Islamic fundamentalists, and could be used as a recruiting tool. Analysts said the announcement was likely aimed at drumming up support.
``It's showing the level of dedication to their cause, the level of sacrifice jihadists are making," said Ben N. Venzke, director of the Washington-based IntelCenter, which monitors terrorism communications.
``In a strange kind of way, it's almost showing a sense of strength and purpose in their cause to other people around the world who might be thinking about joining the fight," Venzke said in a telephone interview.
The statement followed the release of a UN report Wednesday that said fewer foreign fighters have been killed or captured in Iraq in the last few months, ``suggesting that the flow has slackened." The report said some fighters had expressed dissatisfaction that they were asked to kill fellow Muslims rather than Western soldiers and that the only role for them was to be suicide bombers.
Still, the report said Al Qaeda ``has gained by continuing to play a central role in the fighting and in encouraging the growth of sectarian violence; and Iraq has provided many recruits and an excellent training ground."
On the tape, Masri offered amnesty to Iraqis who cooperated with their country's ``occupiers," calling on them to ``return to your religion and nation" during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which Sunnis began observing in Iraq on Saturday and Shi'ites on Monday. ``We will not attack you as long as you declare your true repentance in front of your tribe and relatives," he said.