Military officials announced the deaths of six more U.S. troops killed in the recent violence that's swept Iraq, bringing to 11 the number of Americans slain on the same day.
In Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City slum and in its northern Kazimiyah suburb, thousands of angry Shiites rallied to condemn twin suicide attacks Thursday that killed at least 136 people, including the U.S. troops.
The protesters also denounced what they claimed was American backing for Sunni Arabs politicians who have supported insurgent groups and are now protesting that last month's elections were tainted by fraud.
Final results from the Dec. 15 elections could be released next week and they are expected to show the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance with a strong lead. They Shiites will, however, require support from Kurdish and Sunni Arab political groups to form a viable coalition government.
In other developments:
"I congratulate (the Islamic nation) for the victory of Islam in Iraq," he said.
Al-Zawahri apparently was referring to comments last month by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said President Bush had authorized new troop cuts below the 138,000 level that prevailed for most of last year.
Rumsfeld did not reveal the exact size of the cut, but the Pentagon said the reductions would be about 7,000 troops, about the size of two combat brigades. The Pentagon has not announced a timetable for the reductions, but indications are that the force could be cut significantly by the end of this year.
"You remember I told you more than a year ago that the American withdrawal from Iraq is only a matter of time, and here they are now ... negotiating with the mujahedeen," al-Zawahri said.
The rallies and threats by the Iraq's largest Shiite religious party to react with force if the militant attacks don't cease have renewed fears that paramilitary militias — now thought to constitute some elite police units would take to the streets.
Sunni Arabs have complained that often brutal methods used by Interior Ministry forces — known by names such as the Scorpions and the Wolf Brigade — have already pushed Iraq to the brink of sectarian war.
In Sadr City, more than 5,000 demonstrators chanted slogans in favor of the Interior Ministry and against U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and moderate Sunni Arab leaders, such as leading politician Adnan al-Dulaimi. But they reserved most of their ire for hard-liners such as Saleh al-Mutlaq, the outspoken head of the Sunni Arab National Dialogue Front.
"We're going to crush Saleh al-Mutlaq with our slippers," they chanted, many armed with automatic weapons. "No, no to Zalmay. No, no to terrorism."
Many vented anger over what they said was American backing for Sunnis Arab parties that either supported insurgent groups, or failed to condemn them. U.S. officials have said the inclusion of such parties is necessary for a broad-based government to have the legitimacy to deflate the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.
"We denounce such irresponsible statements by some parties and we condemn all the terrorist acts that target Iraqis, regardless of their sect," al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press. "No government post is worth a single drop of Iraqi. Our decision to join the political process means that we reject terrorism."
The demonstration was organized after Friday prayers by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — one of two religious parties that makes up the governing Alliance.
SCIRI and Badr Brigade Secretary-General Hadi al-Amiri have both blamed hardline Sunni groups of inciting the violence, and said the Defense and Interior ministries — both dominated by Shiites — were being restrained by the U.S-led coalition and had to be unleashed.
Al-Amiri said a special committee had been formed to deal with the issue and visited Khalilzad. There was no comment from the U.S. Embassy on the claim.
He told the pan-Arab Al-Arabyia television that U.S. forces "limit the movement of the two Iraqi ministries with the pretext of calming the situation and encouraging the emergence of the political process. We told them that they should not give any cover to terrorism."
The Badr Brigade is SCIRI's military wing. The party claims the brigade is no longer a militia but performs social and political functions. There are numerous militias around Iraq, numbering in the thousands. They include firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army — a well-organized and heavily armed militia that fought U.S. forces in 2004.Khalilzad has been calling on Iraq's main groups to quickly form a broad-based coalition government once the results are relased. They include the Shiite Alliance, al-Dulaimi's Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front, and a Kurdish coalition.
"We are working with the Iraqi political leaders to build a unity government that will bring Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups together," U.S. Embassy Political councilor Robert Ford told CNN. "I don't think the Shiite leadership wants to slip into broader civil strife and neither does the Sunni Arab leadership."
The recent attacks, he contended, were a sign that the political process was drawing Sunni Arab groups into politics and away from insurgency — which has angered radical militants.