BAGHDAD, Iraq – Notorious Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) appears to be increasingly desperate, accusing Muslim clerics of betrayal in an audio recording released Wednesday.
In the tape, the Al Qaeda-linked terror leader says clerics have not spoken out enough against U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The recording, posted on an Islamist Web site, has not yet been authenticated.
Al-Zarqawi, who leads the feared terror group Al Qaeda in Iraq, is believed to have escaped from his headquarters in insurgent-held Fallujah during the massive U.S.-led assault on the city earlier this month.
U.S. and Iraqi security forces continued their search for him after reports that he was north of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said five more bodies were found Wednesday in northern Mosul, bringing the total to 20 bodies found in the past week. American troops found the five male bodies in the western part of the city, said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, with Task Force Olympia. Hastings said there is no confirmation whether they were part of Iraqi security forces.
Before the latest grisly discovery, U.S. troops had found 10 bodies of soldiers — nine of those shot execution-style — who belonged to the Iraqi regular army, based at the al-Kisik military base about 31 miles west of Mosul, near Tal Afar, he said. Five other bodies, including four decapitated ones, have still not been identified, he said.
Zarqawi and his group, formerly named Tawhid wa-Jihad (search) (Monotheism and Holy War), is believed to be behind many bomb attacks and hostage beheadings in Iraq. The United States has put a $25 million bounty on his head.
It's not clear if the message, addressed to the ulama — the community of Muslim religious scholars — was intended as a direct threat against religious scholars.
"You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy... You have quit supporting the mujahedeen [holy warriors]," the voice purporting to be that of Zarqawi said. "Hundreds of thousands of the nation's sons are being slaughtered at the hands of the infidels because of your silence."
"You made peace with the tyranny and handed over the countries and the people to the Jews and Crusaders ... when you resort to silence on their crimes, when you refused to hold the banners of Jihad and Tawhid, and when you prevented youth from heading to the battlefields in order to defend the religion," he said.
"Instead of implementing God's orders, you chose your safety and preferred your money and sons. You left the mujahedeen facing the strongest power in the world," he said. "Are not your hearts shaken by the scenes of your brothers being surrounded and hurt by your enemy?"
This week, two clerics who were part of an influential Sunni group that openly called for a boycott of Jan. 30 national elections because of the U.S. offensive against Fallujah (search) were assassinated by gunmen.
On Tuesday, Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi, was killed as he left a mosque after dawn prayers in the town of Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
His assassination occurred a day after another prominent Sunni cleric was killed in the northern city of Mosul — Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, who was the brother of the association's spokesman. It was unclear whether those two attacks were related.
Meanwhile, some 6,000 Iraqi Army troops — the first batch of quick-reaction forces — graduated Wednesday from a southern military base, a military spokesman said.
The new graduates are the first group trained as quick-reaction forces, in charge of launching defensive and offensive operations in emergencies, said the spokesman. A delegation of the Iraqi defense ministry and U.S. military officers attended the graduation ceremony at Al-Nuimiyah base is about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
In Other Violence
In the northern city of Kirkuk, militants attacked Iraqi National Guard forces, killing one soldier and a civilian in the drive-by shooting, the military said Wednesday.
The attackers struck after sundown Tuesday, firing from their car on Iraqi forces helping a civilian with his vehicle, the military said in a statement.
Another Iraqi guardsman suffered injuries in the incident, the military said. Kirkuk is about 180 miles north of Baghdad.
On Wednesday, Nineveh province's deputy governor said his convoy came under gunfire in northern Mosul, killing one of his bodyguards and injuring two others. An Interior Ministry special forces member in the area was also killed, he said.
Kirkuk and Mosul are both ethnically mixed cities, where U.S.-supporting Kurds vie for influence with anti-coalition Sunni Arabs.
Deputy Gov. Khasro Gouran (search), a Kurd, said he was on his way home when his convoy was attacked around 1 p.m. near the local administration building. One bodyguard was killed in the attack. The other two guards injured included Gouran's brother, who also acts as a bodyguard.
He said authorities were investigating the possibility that the convoy was mistakenly fired upon by the special Interior Ministry force in the area.
"There may have been a misunderstanding," Gouran said.
In Mahmoudiya, gunmen ambushed a taxi carrying an Iraqi National Guard soldier to work Wednesday, hospital officials said.
Dr. Dawoud al-Taie at Mahmoudiya Hospital said the shooting happened after dawn as the soldier was headed to his military base near the town about 25 miles south of the Iraqi capital.
Mahmoudiya is in an area known as the "triangle of death," a region where rebels frequently attack U.S. and allied forces.
The release of the purported al-Zarqawi tape came a day after 5,000 U.S. Marines, British troops and Iraqi forces began an offensive dubbed Operation Plymouth Rock (search) aimed at clearing a swath of insurgent hotbeds south of Baghdad.
Tuesday's series of raids and house searches was the third large-scale military operation this month aimed at suppressing Iraq's Sunni Muslim insurgency ahead of crucial elections set for Jan. 30.
The assault aims to stem an increase of violence in an area that has been notorious for months as a danger zone. Car bombings, rocket attacks and ambushes have surged in recent weeks — likely in part due to guerrillas who slipped out of the militant stronghold of Fallujah, according to commanders.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.