(photo credit: AP [file])
The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq offered money for the murder of a Swedish artist who recently produced images deemed insulting to Islam and promised a new offensive in Iraq during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in a statement carried by Islamist Web sites Saturday.
In a half hour audio file entitled "They plotted yet God too was plotting," Abu Omar al-Baghdadi also named the other insurgent groups in Iraq al-Qaida was fighting and promised new attacks, particular against the minority Yazidi sect that was recently devastated by massive car bombs.
"We are calling for the assassination of cartoonist Lars Vilks who dared insult our Prophet, peace be upon him, and we announce a reward during this generous month of Ramadan of US$100,000 (72,000 Euro) for the one who kills this criminal," the transcript on the Web site said.
Al-Baghdadi, who leads the al-Qaida front group the Islamic State in Iraq, also promised a new campaign of attacks dedicated to his predecessor during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan that has traditionally witnessed an increase in violence in the war torn country.
"I am honored to announce the invasion of the martyr Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the beginning of Ramadan," he said.
The al-Qaida leader upped the reward for Vilks' death to US$150,000 if he was "slaughtered like a lamb" and offered US$50,000 for the head of the editor of Nerikes Allehanda, the Swedish paper that printed Vilks' cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a dog's body on August 19.
Most of al-Baghdadi's message, however, focused on the situation in Iraq and he reserved special ire for the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization behind the country's largest Sunni political party, the Islamic Party in Iraq.
He accused the organization of working with US forces to combat al-Qaida insurgents, especially in Diyala province, northeast of the capital Baghdad.
"Our honorable nation should recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, and the Islamic party at the top of it, are practicing today the most heinous campaign to erase the religion from Iraq," said al-Baghdadi.
He also criticized nationalist insurgent groups, such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades and Hamas of Iraq, accusing them of working with the Iraqi security forces.
The message confirms statements by US commanders that not only are Iraqi tribes taking on al-Qaida, but also other insurgent groups that once fought coalition forces and the government, resulting in new successes in the struggle against the militant organization.
Al-Baghdadi also singled out Iraq's tiny Yazidi minority, followers of an ancient sect living in the north of the country that are considered devil-worshippers by extremist Muslims and were targeted last month by car bombs in the most devastating attack on civilians since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack, linking it to the stoning death of a young Yazidi woman who converted to Islam in an attempt to elope with a Muslim boyfriend.
"I swear to God either they hand in those who killed you or we will annihilate their greenery, uproot them and expel them from the land of Iraq," he said. "We will continue waging attacks against them until their great devil announces his acceptance and that he doesn't object to the conversion of any Yazidi to Islam"
For his part, Vilks said from Sweden that he believed the matter of his cartoons had been blown out of proportion.
"We have a real problem here," Vilks told The Associated Press over the telephone. "We can only hope that Muslims in Europe and in the Western world chose to distance themselves from this and support the idea of freedom of expression."
Aside from a few scattered protests and condemnations by Muslim countries, the reaction to the cartoon has been muted, in contrast to the violent demonstrations and harsh outcry accompanying similar images that appeared in a Danish paper last year.
Diplomats from 22 countries, including Iran, Iraq and Syria, met with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt last week to discuss the angry reactions to the sketch, and had "very good dialogue," the official said at the time.
Al-Baghdadi added in his message that if the Swedish government didn't apologize, his organization would also attack companies like Volvo, Electrolux, Ikea, Ericsson and Scania.