Qaeda's Zawahri says British "fleeing" from Iraq

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DUBAI, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, has said Britain's handover of security in southern Iraq shows insurgents are gaining the upper hand there.

"Reports from Iraq point to the increasing power of the mujahideen (holy war fighters) and the deteriorating condition of the Americans," Zawahri told an interviewer from al Qaeda's media arm As-Sahab, in a video posted on the Internet on Sunday.

"And the decision of the British to flee is sufficient (proof of this)," said the bearded militant leader, sitting beside an assault rifle and shelves full of books.

The video, carried by Islamic Web sites, was issued as Britain handed over security to Iraqi forces in the last of four provinces it once patrolled, effectively marking the end of nearly five years of British control of southern Iraq.

The video included footage from insurgent groups and Western television stations, including critical remarks on the U.S. strategy in Iraq by Ricardo Sanchez, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq. Zawahri dismissed optimism expressed by Washington: "Either the U.S. administration is lying outrageously ... or the Americans have not learned anything from four years of war, as they did not learn from their defeat in Vietnam."

Zawahri said agents might have infiltrated the ranks of the al Qaeda-linked group Islamic State in Iraq to carry out attacks on the innocent and commit other crimes, in order to encourage Sunni groups to ally themselves with U.S.-led forces against al Qaeda. He called for a swift investigation.

"If it becomes clear that some group is involved in these crimes, they should be exposed to defeat the plots of the Americans," he said, calling on Sunni groups to unite with the Islamic State in Iraq group.

The Web sites invited sympathisers to send in questions in the next month for Zawahri to answer in an "open interview".

Zawahri also denounced Iran for "stabbing the Islamic nation in the back" by recognising the U.S.-backed government in Iraq. He rejected as "empty propaganda" a call by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be "wiped off the map".

"Were he sincere about eliminating Israel, he would not remain with it as a member of the United Nations, whose charter defends the sovereignty, territorial integrity and well-being of all members," Zawahri said.

The 97-minute video, which had English subtitles, carried the date of the Muslim lunar that which ended around Dec. 10. Zawahri called on Muslims to support al Qaeda's wing in north Africa and also urged Pakistan's army and devout Muslims there to rise against U.S.-allied President Pervez Musharraf.