BAGHDAD, July 8 (Reuters) - An insurgent group linked to al-Qaeda of Iraq urged militants to continue attacks against U.S. forces even after combat troops were pulled from city centres, according to an audiotape released on Wednesday.
"Even if the Americans remain nowhere but a small spot in the Iraqi desert ... so every Muslim should battle them until they are expelled," the voice, reported to be Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, said in the recording posted on a website used by jihadists.
The Iraqi government heralded the capture this spring of a man they identified as Baghdadi, just as an uptick in major attacks raised troubling questions about whether Iraq would be able to maintain a sharp decline in the violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
It was not the first time Iraqi officials had announced the capture of someone identified as Baghdadi, and the Sunni Arab insurgent group has since denied his arrest.
The Islamic State of Iraq is believed to be affiliated with al Qaeda’s main organisation in Iraq, led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.
The tape comes a week after the United States pulled combat troops from bases within Iraqi cities and towns, part of a plan to halt combat operations in August 2010 and withdraw all American forces by the end of 2011.
But militant attacks continue, especially in Baghdad and parts of northern Iraq, underscoring doubts about whether local forces will be able to impose order on their own.
The speaker called on Sunni Arab militiamen, who helped drive al Qaeda out of most of Iraq after they began collaborating with American forces in 2006, to rejoin the insurgency and battle Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government.
"We tell them ‘Come back to your senses ... Nothing better than repent and return to the ranks of jihadists and to leave the infidels," the tape said. (Writing by Aseel Kami; editing by Missy Ryan and Elizabeth Fullerton)