CAIRO, Egypt – The leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq railed against Shiites in a four-hour-long audiotape harangue posted on the Web Friday, saying that militias are raping women and killing Sunnis and that the community must ignore calls for reconciliation and fight.
The tape by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appeared aimed at sabotaging the Iraqi government's efforts to finish off a unity government — but was also intended to go beyond Iraq's borders and enflame already rising Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Arab world.
"There's a civil war going on in Iraq, but it will not become truly fierce until it's exported outside Iraq. This tape is trying to do just that," said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi political commentator.
The deputy leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, chastised Zarqawi last September for launching attacks on Shiites, recalled Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand research group in California.
"Obviously, he [Zarqawi] is thumbing his nose at the Al Qaeda central leadership," Hoffman said. "That's significant."
Zarqawi's Sunni insurgent followers have carried out some of the bloodiest suicide bombings in Iraq's conflict and have frequently targeted Shiite civilians and mosques in an attempt to spark civil war. In his statements, the Jordanian-born militant often vilifies Shiites as infidels.
But Friday's tape was an unprecedented screed that over four hours chronicled what Zarqawi said was the Shiites' campaign throughout history to destroy Islam and help foreign invaders of Muslim lands.
"Sunnis, wake up, pay attention and prepare to confront the poisons of the Shiite snakes," Zarqawi said. "Forget about those advocating the end of sectariansim and calling for national unity."
He pointed to two Shiite militias with links to parties in the current Shiite-dominated Iraqi government accused by Sunnis in Iraq of running death squads in a wave of sectarian violence the past months.
"They kill men and arrest women, put them in prison and rape them and steal everything from the houses of the Sunnis," he said.
A written statement said Friday's audiotape was made two months ago.
The CIA said late Friday that technical analysis of the tape had confirmed it was the voice of Zarqawi.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Zarqawi expressed "a futile brutality, depraved mentally and morally."
"I believe the Iraqi people won't listenn to such miserable words," he told a press conference in Baghdad. "Reconciliation is the hope for all Iraqis, and all Iraqis welcome it".
Al-Maliki has put together a government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that U.S. and Iraqi officials hope will be able to ease spiralling sectarian violence in the country. But al-Maliki has struggled to get the parties to agreee on key security posts that would lead any effort to bring stability — the interior and defense ministries.
He said Thursday he intends to announce names for the posts even without an agreement between his government partners in an attempt to force a resolution to the continuing differences.
Zarqawi appeared to be aiming at a wider audience, seeking to rally Sunni radicals by tapping into mistrust of Shiites and non-Arab Shiite Iran.
He denounced Shiites across the Mideast, saying they were "the same as Jews, with secret meetings" loyal to a "mother country" — Israel for the Jews, Iran for the Shiites.
He called the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah the "enemy of Sunnis" and accused it of working to protect Israel from Lebanon-based Palestinian guerrillas.
Hezbollah gained widespread popularity among both Sunnis and Shiites for its fight against Israel. But its support at home has waned amid resentment by anti-Syrian Lebanese for its alliance with Damascus and Tehran.
The head of south Lebanon's Shiite religious scholars, Sheik Afif al-Naboulsi, said the militant leader was seeking to "incite sectarian sentiments" and "name himself the leader of the Sunnis."
The conflict in Iraq has reopened the long dormant fault lines between the two communities across the Arab world, where Sunnis form the vast majority.
Sunni-led governments have shown increasing fear of restiveness among their Shiite populations. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak enraged Shiites earlier this year when he said they were more loyal to Iran than their own countries, and Jordan's King Abdullah has warned of a "Shiite crescent" of power.
It was Zarqawi's first message since an April 29 videotape that seemed directly aimed at creating a hero's image of himself in the eyes of extremists after a wave of criticism over Muslim civilian deaths in some of his attacks — particularly a triple hotel bombing in Amman in November that killed 63 people.
The video was the first to show his face and had dramatic images of him firing a machine gun in the desert and consulting with mujahedeen leaders, apparently to emphasize his control.