Osama bin Laden warned Iraq's Sunni Arabs against joining tribal councils fighting al Qaeda or participating in any unity government in a new audiotape Saturday, the terror network's latest attempt to shore up its ranks in the war-torn country.
Bin Laden also made an unusually sharp threat of attacks against Israel, vowing to expand al Qaeda's jihad, or holy war, to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine.
Most of the 56-minute tape dealt with Iraq, reflecting al Qaeda's eagerness to unify insurgents there behind it at a time when the U.S. military claims to have al Qaeda's Iraq branch on the run.
The tape did not mention Pakistan or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, though Pakistan's government has blamed al Qaeda and the Taliban for her death on Thursday.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said bin Laden's tape shows that al Qaeda's aim is to block democracy and freedom for all Iraqis.
"It also reminds us that the mission to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq is critically important and must succeed," Fratto said. "The Iraqi people - every day, and in increasing numbers - are choosing freedom and standing against the murderous, hateful ideology of AQI. And we stand with them."
Several hours before the tape was issued, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said al Qaeda was becoming increasingly fearful over losing the support of Sunni Arabs and had begun targeting the leaders of tribal councils, known as Awakening Councils, who have switched allegiances in favor of America.
Petraeus said al Qaeda attaches "enormous importance" to "these tribes that have turned against them, and to the general sense that Sunni Arab communities have rejected them more and more around Iraq."
"They are trying to counter this and they have done so by attacking them," which is increasingly turning Sunnis against al Qaeda, he said.
Iraq's interior ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf claimed that 75 percent of al Qaeda in Iraq's terrorist network had been destroyed in 2007, and gave some of the credit to the rise of anti-al Qaeda in Iraq councils.
Petraeus said that despite a number of successes against al Qaeda in recent months, the terror network remains "the most significant enemy Iraq faces because it carries out the most horrific attacks."
In the audiotape, bin Laden denounced Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the former leader of the Anbar Awakening Council, who was killed in a September bombing claimed by al Qaeda, and he said those who participate in the tribal councils "have betrayed the nation and brought disgrace and shame to their people. They will suffer in life and in the afterlife."
"I advise those who follow the path of temptation should wash out this disgrace by repentance," he said. "This participation (in the Awakening Councils) is a great apostasy and sedition that will lead them to Hell."
Bin Laden said U.S. and Iraqi officials are seeking to set up a "national unity government" joining the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
"Our duty is to foil these dangerous schemes, which try to prevent the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq, which would be a wall of resistance against American schemes to divide Iraq," he said.
He called on Iraq's Sunni Arabs to rally behind the Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent umbrella group led by al Qaeda. Besides the Awakening Councils, some Sunni insurgent groups that continue to fight the Americans have rejected the Islamic State.
Bin Laden said Sunnis should pledge their allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the little known "emir" or leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. U.S. officials have claimed that al-Baghdadi does not exist, saying al Qaeda created the name to give its coalition the illusion of an Iraqi leadership.
"Failure to give allegiance to the emir after he has been endorsed leads to great evils," bin Laden warned. "Emir Abu Omar would rather have his neck severed than betray the Muslims ... Emir Abu Omar and his brothers are not one of those who accept compromise or meeting the enemy halfway."
The authenticity of the tape could not be independently confirmed. But the voice resembled that of bin Laden. The tape was posted on an Islamic militant Web site where al Qaeda's media arm, Al-Sahab, issues the group's messages.
The tape was the latest in a string of messages by al Qaeda leaders trying to patch up divisions among insurgents in Iraq and rally Sunnis behind al Qaeda.
In an October tape, bin Laden urged insurgents to unite with the Islamic State of Iraq, but took a conciliatory tone - chiding even al Qaeda's followers for being too "extremist" in their positions toward other insurgents.
Bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahri took a sharper tone in a Dec. 16 video, branding as "traitors" those who work with the anti-Qaeda tribal councils and calling for Sunnis to purge anyone cooperating with the Americans.
Also in Saturday's tape, bin Laden promised to widen al Qaeda's fight to include Israel, stepping up al Qaeda's attempts to use the Israeli-Arab conflict to rally supporters.
"I would like to assure our people in Palestine that we will expand our jihad there," bin Laden said.
"We intend to liberate Palestine, the whole of Palestine from the (Jordan) river to the sea," he said, threatening "blood for blood, destruction for destruction."
Bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders frequently vow to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine in their messages. But the latest comments were a more direct language than bin Laden usually uses. Israel has warned of growing al Qaeda activity in Palestinian territory, but the terror network is not believed to have taken a strong direct role there so far.
"We will not recognize even one inch for Jews in the land of Palestine as other Muslim leaders have," bin Laden said.
The tape was the fifth message released by bin Laden this year, a flurry of activity after he went more than a year without issuing any tapes. The messages began with a Sept. 8 video that showed bin Laden for the first time in nearly three years. The other messages this year have been audiotapes.