CAIRO - Osama bin Laden warned Iraq's Sunni Arabs against fighting Al Qaeda and promised to expand the terror group's holy war to Israel in a new audiotape released yesterday, threatening "blood for blood, destruction for destruction."
Most of the 56-minute tape dealt with Iraq, apparently Al Qaeda's latest attempt to keep supporters in Iraq unified at a time when the US military contends to have Al Qaeda's Iraq branch on the run.
The tape did not mention Pakistan or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, though Pakistan's government has blamed Al Qaeda and the Taliban for her death Thursday.
But bin Laden's comments offered an unusually direct attack on Israel, which has warned of growing Al Qaeda activity in Palestinian territory. The terror network is not believed to have taken a strong role there so far.
"We intend to liberate Palestine, the whole of Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the sea," he said, threatening "blood for blood, destruction for destruction."
"We will not recognize even one inch for Jews in the land of Palestine as other Muslim leaders have," bin Laden said.
In Iraq, a number of Sunni Arab tribes in western Anbar Province have formed a coalition fighting Al Qaeda-linked insurgents that US officials credit for deeply reducing violence in the province. The US military has been working to form similar "Awakening Councils" in other areas of Iraq.
In the audiotape, bin Laden denounced Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the former leader of the Anbar Awakening Council, who was killed in a September bombing claimed by Al Qaeda. "The most evil of the traitors are those who trade away their religion for the sake of their mortal life," bin Laden said.
Bin Laden said US and Iraqi officials are seeking to set up a "national unity government" joining the country's Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds. "Our duty is to foil these dangerous schemes, which try to prevent the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq," he said.
The authenticity of the tape could not be independently confirmed. But the voice resembled that of bin Laden. The tape was posted on an Islamic militant website where Al Qaeda's media arm, Al-Sahab, issues the group's messages.
Iraq's Interior Ministry spokesman said yesterday that 75 percent of Al Qaeda in Iraq's terrorist network had been destroyed this year. Major General Abdul Kareem Khalaf said the disruption of the terrorist network was due to improvements in Iraqi security forces, which he said had made strides in weeding out commanders and officers with ties to militias or who were involved in criminal activities. He also credited the rise of anti-Qaeda in Iraq groups, mostly made up of Sunni fighters.
General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, said yesterday that the terror group remained his chief concern. He said "progress is tenuous, it is fragile in many areas," despite a 60 percent decline in violence since June.
In a separate development yesterday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq flew to London for what an official in his office said was treatment for exhaustion. The official said Maliki, 57, would undergo a series of routine checkups, including a heart scan.
State television showed Maliki, who has been in office since May 2006, boarding his plane at the Baghdad airport. He appeared healthy and walked to the plane from the terminal.
Iraq's chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi, said yesterday that two senior insurgents linked to Al Qaeda were arrested the day before near Baghdad.
Ahmed Turky Abbas, the "defense minister" of the Islamic State of Iraq - an Al Qaeda front group - was arrested in a village near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, Moussawi said. Not far from Mahmoudiya, in Latifiyah, the Iraqi Army also arrested Hussein Ali Turky, considered a local religious leader for Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr yesterday called for reconciliation between his followers and Iraqi security forces in the holy city of Karbala, according to a Sadr aide.
In August, followers of Sadr and fighters loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council clashed in Karbala during a religious festival, killing 52 people.