U.S. cleric urges Muslims to kill U.S. soldiers

DUBAI (Reuters) - A U.S.-born militant cleric has urged Muslims to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and vowed to step up attacks against the U.S. military, according to a videotape released on Sunday.

Anwar al-Awlaki, wanted dead or alive by U.S. authorities, is a leading figure linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing. He is believed to be on the run in the impoverished Gulf Arab state.

“Muslims should object to what’s going on either verbally or by physical action,” Awlaki said in the 45-minute interview posted on an Islamist website. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the recording.

Awlaki praised the actions of U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan who shot dead 13 people at Fort Hood, a Texas army base, in November.

“Nidal was my student ... I’m proud of Nidal Hasan and this was a heroic act,” he said, adding: “Who can object to what he did? He killed soldiers on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Hasan had sent emails to the cleric but they were intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies and examined by U.S. joint terrorism task forces.

“If the situation remains we will see new Nidal Hasans appearing,” Awlaki said in the tape. “These American soldiers on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq, we will kill them.”

Asked by an interviewer if killing U.S. soldiers would have a negative impact on Muslims in the United States, Awlaki said defending Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan was a larger priority.

“Is protecting the reputation of Muslims in America more important than bombs dropping on millions of Muslims elsewhere?”

U.S. officials said in April that President Barack Obama’s administration had authorized operations to capture or kill Awlaki. Yemen has said it will not hand over Awlaki, whose family is well-known in Yemen, but instead put him on trial if he is arrested.

Born in New Mexico, Awlaki led prayers at U.S. mosques. He returned to Yemen in 2004 where he taught at a university before he was arrested and imprisoned in 2006 for suspected links to al Qaeda and involvement in attacks. He was released in late 2007.

Western countries fear that al Qaeda’s resurgent regional wing is exploiting instability in Yemen, which borders oil giant Saudi Arabia, to launch attacks in the region and beyond.

Reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Maria Golovnina