A key insurgency leader in Iraq said the U.S. killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a "great loss," but one that will strengthen the militants' determination, according to an audio tape broadcast Friday.
The Al-Jazeera network said the voice on the tape was that of Abu Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, the head of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which groups five Iraqi insurgent organizations including Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the authenticity of the tape couldn't immediately be verified.
The tape appeared to be an attempt to rally support for the insurgents after last week's killing of Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who died when U.S. forces bombed the house north of Baghdad where he was meeting his advisers.
Significantly, the speaker does not mention the man believed chosen to replace Zarqawi, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer. There is considerable debate over his identity: The U.S. military says al-Muhajer is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, others are less certain and one terror expert thinks al-Masri does not exist.
But the conspicuous absence of any pledge of allegiance to al-Mujaher suggests al-Baghdadi does not support him.
"This is a message to the enemies of God, the crusaders, the rejectionists and the renegades," the voice says, referring respectively the US-led forces, the Shiites, and the Sunnis in the Iraqi government.
"The martyrdom of the leader will not change the arena of confrontation. Rather, it will become fiercer and stronger," the speaker says. "This leader [Zarqawi] has laid the foundations and his great loss will not lead to weakness. He will remain a symbol for all the mujahideen, who will take strength from his steadfastness."
Al-Baghdadi is believed to be a former officer in Saddam's army, or its elite Republican Guard, who has worked closely with Zarqawi since the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator in April 2003.
Some terror experts mentioned al-Baghdadi as the possible successor of Zarqawi, but the U.S. military believe Al Qaeda in Iraq is now led by al-Masri, an Egyptian-born terrorist who trained with Zarqawi in Afghanistan.
Mustafa Alani, a terror specialist at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, has said the new leader will be appointed by Usama bin Laden or his top Al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri, who are believed to be hiding in the border mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The aggressive tone of al-Baghdadi's remarks contrasted sharply with what the Iraqi government and U.S. military have been saying about their counter-insurgency successes this week.
American and Iraqi forces have killed 104 insurgents and discovered 28 significant arms caches since Zarqawi was killed, the U.S. military said.
Iraq's National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said the documents and information obtained in these raids have brought matters to "the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda in Iraq."