STOCKHOLM/DUBAI (Reuters) - The head of an al Qaeda-led group in Iraq has offered $100,000 for the killing of a Swedish cartoonist for his drawing of Islam's Prophet Mohammad and threatened to attack big Swedish companies.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq, also offered $50,000 to anyone who killed the editor of the newspaper that published the drawing by Lars Vilks depicting the head of the Prophet on the body of a dog.
Sweden's Nerikes Allehanda daily published the drawing, part of a series which art galleries in Sweden had declined to display, last month in what it called a defense of free speech.
Islam does not allow images of the Prophet Mohammad and Muslims consider dogs to be unclean.
The controversy follows violent protests in the Muslim world last year over the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons some Muslims felt insulted the Prophet Mohammad. More than 50 people died across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Until now, the Swedish image, published on August 27, had drawn only diplomatic ire and a small local demonstration. Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt met ambassadors from 22 Muslim countries to try to defuse the row.
"From now on we announce the call to shed the blood of the Lars who dared to insult our Prophet ... and during this munificent month we announce an award worth $100,000 to the person who kills this infidel criminal," Baghdadi said in the 31-minute audiotape posted on an Islamist Web site on Saturday.
"The award will be increased to $150,000 if he were to be slaughtered like a lamb.
"We know how to force them to withdraw and apologize, and if they don't, they can wait for our strikes on their economy and giant companies such as Ericsson, Volvo, Ikea ..." He also mentioned Scania and Electrolux.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Vilks told Reuters he had been in touch with the police.
"These people represent a very small branch of our Muslims. They work with noisy threats," Vilks said by telephone. "But I can, of course, not entirely disregard such a threat."
He defended the right to freedom of expression.
"It is fundamental for Western thinking to be able to express one's artistry without making exceptions for holiness. I had no murky motives, no racist motives and so on. It was initially a very modest local exhibition and the situation has changed little by little," he said.
Swedish police spokesman Torsten Persson said police had opened an investigation into unlawful threats but Vilks was not under police protection and was in Germany at the moment.
Nerikes Allehanda Editor Ulf Johansson said he would step up security in cooperation with the police but did not regret publishing the image. He said it was "deplorable" the conflict had accelerated internationally.
When the protests erupted over the Danish cartoons, angry Muslims attacked Danish embassies and boycotted Danish goods in several countries. Swedish companies said they were considering the threats.
Telecom equipment giant Ericsson spokeswoman Ase Lindskog said the firm had stepped up security in the Middle East.
"We have taken some concrete actions, like taking away our flags from buildings where we have our sales offices," she said.
Appliance maker Electrolux's spokesman Anders Edholm said it was trying to find out more and had not decided on any response.
Truck maker Volvo spokesman Marten Wikforss said security staff were looking into the matter.
A major Swedish Muslim group, the Swedish Muslim Council, condemned Baghdadi's threats.
The prime minister declined to comment on the threat.
(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm)