BAGHDAD – The leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq purportedly criticized the country's largest Sunni political party on Saturday for participating in the political process and branded its leader, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a "criminal."
A man introduced as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, sharply rebuked the Iraqi Islamic Party for what he said was its alliance with U.S.-led forces in the country but said he was not calling for attacks against the group.
The audiotaped statement was posted on a militant Web site four days after Iraqi officials claimed that al-Masri had been killed by rivals north of Baghdad but the body had not been recovered. The U.S. military later said it could not confirm the report of al-Masri's death and believed it stemmed from confusion over the killing of another Al Qaeda militant.
There was no indication when the some 20 minute statement was recorded, although a transcript posted on the Web site was dated Saturday. It could not be independently verified.
A similar threat in March, calling Deputy Prime Minister Salam Al-Zubaie a stooge "to the crusader occupiers," was followed a day later by an assassination attempt against the highest-ranking Sunni government official. That statement, which was made by the Al Qaeda front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, also singled out al-Hashemi.
In his statement Saturday, al-Masri sharply criticized al-Hashemi for taking part in politics, thereby giving legitimacy to the Shiite-led government off Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose U.S.-backed security forces are fighting Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda militants.
"This criminal relentlessly calls for the occupier to remain," he said, referring to al-Hashemi.
However, he said he was not calling for attacks against the Islamic Party, which, he explained, would only distract his group from its fight against the Shiites and American forces.
"The leaders of the Islamic Party are renegades but we make it clear that we don't want to fight them and be drawn into secondary battles that only serve the occupier and its Shiite associates," he said in the statement.
Al-Masri, an Egyptian militant, took over leadership of the terror network and was endorsed by Usama bin Laden after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed last June by a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province.