Iraq's most feared terror leader called on his followers Thursday to show patience and prepare for a long struggle against the Americans, promising in an audiotape posted on the Internet that "ferocious wars ... take their time" but victory was assured.
Elsewhere, U.S. troops launched fresh raids around the northern city of Mosul, killing five suspected insurgents, in a bid to rein in guerrillas and safeguard the Jan. 30 national elections. Iraqi forces sealed off main routes into Baghdad a day after a wave of deadly car bombings.
The 90-minute message, purportedly from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, appeared to be aimed at rallying his forces following the loss of their base in Fallujah and at marshaling support as Iraqis prepare for their first poll since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Fighters who have taken the path of jihad have to realize the nature and the demands of the battle toward the required goal," the speaker said. "This group has to be patient in the path that it has taken and ... not to hurry victory. The promise of God will be fulfilled no matter what."
The authenticity of the tape could not immediately be verified. It appeared before President Bush was sworn in for a second term that begins under the shadow of a continuing insurgency in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi is the leader of an al Qaeda affiliate that was responsible for kidnapping and beheading several foreigners, including Americans, before the fall of their Fallujah base. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for al-Zarqawi's capture or death — the same amount as for Osama bin Laden.
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The speaker in the tape also acknowledged that a leading al Qaeda commander in Fallujah, Omar Hadid, had been killed fighting the Americans when the city fell to a U.S.-Iraqi assault. Hadid was believed to have escaped the fighting.
"Ferocious wars are not determined by the outcome of days or weeks," the speaker on the tape said. "They take their time until it's time to announce the victory of one of the parties."
In a separate statement, al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for a Thursday explosion that injured five British soldiers and an undetermined number of Iraqis at a supply base in southern Iraq outside Basra. A Web statement said the attack was a suicide operation in retaliation for alleged British abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
The authenticity of that statement also could not be determined, and the British military gave no reason for the blast. Three British soldiers are on trial at a British base in Germany for allegedly abusing Iraqi prisoners in May 2003.
In the audiotape, al-Zarqawi also denounced Iraqi Shiites for fighting alongside U.S. troops — an apparent attempt to inflame sectarian tensions ahead of the vote. The elections have been embraced by majority Shiites but rejected by many minority Sunnis, who say it should be postponed because of the violence.
The speaker berated Shiites for fighting their Sunni countrymen in Fallujah "with the blessing" of the most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
"They broke into the safe houses of God," the speaker said of Shiites, who comprise about 60 percent of the country's estimated 25 million people. "They defiled them and they hung the photos of their Satan, al-Sistani, on the walls and they spitefully wrote: 'Today, your land; tomorrow it will be your honor."'
In Mosul, Army troops from the Stryker Brigade Combat Team killed five suspected insurgents Thursday and provided security for Iraqi National Guardsmen who raided a mosque and recovered a cache of weapons, the military said. U.S. troops also detained nine people and seized weapons in overnight sweeps in the city.
Later Thursday, insurgents shelled a Mosul hospital where U.S. and Iraqi forces had taken up positions in an annex, hospital director Faris Hani said. Doctors and patients fled, and no casualties were reported.
Elsewhere, major highways leading into Baghdad from the south and west were sealed off by Iraqi forces following a string of car bombs Wednesday. Alaa Mahmoud, an Iraqi National Guard captain at one roadblock, said he was under orders to prevent all vehicles from entering the capital.
Baghdad was generally quiet Thursday, the first day of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. Marking the start of the four-day festival, a cleric at a Baghdad mosque reflected on the effect violence has had on life in the now dreary and frightened capital.
"Baghdad is the city of science, city of kings, city of believers. It has now become the city of explosions and hideout of criminals," Mohammed al-Sumeidi said in his sermon.
Elsewhere, insurgents fired at least six mortar shells or rockets in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, and U.S. Marines returned fire, the military said. Two Iraqis were killed and two others wounded, according to hospital officials.