AMMAN, Jordan – The Mideast's most feared terrorist sought Friday to justify a triple suicide bombing on Amman hotels that killed 59 civilians, insisting he did not deliberately target a wedding party and appealing to Muslims to believe that he was not attacking them.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, took an unusually defensive tone in an audiotape posted on the Internet, seeking to shore up support after widespread anger over the civilian deaths, even among sympathizers.
Still, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi made clear he was not about to stop the bloodshed, warning he will attack more tourist sites in Jordan and threatening to behead King Abdullah II. He said he was targeting Jordan because it is serving as a "protector" for Israel, helps the U.S. military in Iraq and has become a "swamp of obscenity," with alcohol and prostitution in its tourist sites.
"Your star is fading. You will not escape your fate, you descendant of traitors. We will be able to reach your head and chop it off," al-Zarqawi said, referring to the king.
Al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head from the U.S., told Jordanians to stay away from bases used by U.S. forces, hotels and tourist sites in Amman, the Dead Sea and the southern resort of Aqaba and embassies of governments participating in the war in Iraq, saying they would be targeted.
"People of Islam in Jordan, we want to assure you that we are extremely careful over your lives ... you are more beloved to us than ourselves," he said.
The authenticity of the audiotape, posted on an Islamic militant Web forum, could not be confirmed independently, but the voice resembled that of al-Zarqawi on previous tapes.
The tape was posted following widespread outrage over the Nov. 9 bombings against three Amman hotels that killed 59 people, 30 of them in a Jordanian-Palestinian wedding party held in a ballroom.
Jordan has seen a series of large demonstrations denouncing the attack, including one on Friday. Thousands marched through downtown Amman, chanting "Al-Zarqawi, you coward," and carrying banners that read "Al-Zarqawi, you are the enemy of God."
Contributors to militant Web forums — who generally lionize al-Zarqawi and praise his attacks — criticized the bombings. In the militant leader's hometown of Zarqa, east of Amman, many residents denounced him, saying he has lost any sympathy he had there.
In the past, al-Zarqawi has defended Muslim civilian casualties in attacks by his suicide bombers in Iraq, saying they were justified because the attacks are part of a "jihad" against U.S. occupiers and their Iraqi allies. "God ordered us to attack the infidels by all means ... even if armed infidels and unintended victims — women and children — are killed together," he said in an audiotape released in May.
But he sounded more penitent in Friday's audio.
"People of Jordan, we did not undertake to blow up any wedding parties," he said. "For those Muslims who were killed, we ask God to show them mercy, for they were not targets. We did not and will not think for one moment to target them even if they were people of immorality and debauchery."
In the deadliest of the triple attacks, a bomber set off his explosives belt in the Radisson hotel, killing 30 people at a Jordanian-Palestinian wedding party in a ballroom. Both the bride's parents were among the dead, as was the father of the groom.
But al-Zarqawi insisted that Jordanian officials' accounts that the bomber specifically targeted the wedding were a "lie."
Al-Zarqawi claimed the bomber struck a hall where Israeli and American intelligence officials were meeting at the time. Part of the roof fell in on the wedding hall, either from the blast or even — he said — from a separate bomb placed in the roof, though not by Al Qaeda.
"Our brothers knew their targets with great precision," he said. "God knows we chose these hotels only after more than two months of close observation (that proved) that these hotels had become headquarters for the Israeli and American intelligence," he said.
Al-Zarqawi accused the Jordanian government of hiding casualties among Israeli and American agents.
The Radisson attack involved two bombers — an Iraqi husband and wife. Witnesses told Jordanian security officials that the couple talked their way into the wedding, telling hotel employees they wanted to watch, then went to different sides of the hall. When the woman's explosives belt failed to go off, her husband told her to leave, then he jumped on a table in the ballroom and set off his blast, Jordanian officials have said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq issued a claim of responsibility soon after the blasts, saying a husband and wife carried out one of the attacks — a statement that appears to have backfired, alerting Jordanian authorities that a woman was involved and leading to her capture four days later.
The woman, Sajida al-Rishawi, later made a televised confession, saying she and her husband entered the wedding party ballroom.
Bassam al-Bana, the spokesman for the Radisson, denied al-Zarqawi's claims about an intelligence meeting. "There were no meetings of Israelis there," he told The Associated Press.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev refused to comment when asked whether Israeli intelligence officers were meeting at the hotel. "This man has the blood of many innocents on his hands, most of them Muslims. To claim that those innocent victims in Jordan were working for Israel is simply ludicrous and deserves ridicule," he said.
The only Israeli killed in the blasts was an Israeli Arab who was attending the wedding. Four Americans were killed in the triple bombings — including the Syrian-born moviemaker Mustafa Akkad and his daughter, who were guests at the Radisson wedding reception.