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Iraq's Qaeda pledges support to Zawahri, vows attacks

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-linked militant group in Iraq pledged support to the organization’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and vowed more revenge attacks for the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. forces in Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden (L) sits with his adviser and purported successor Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian linked to the al Qaeda network, during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (not pictured) in an image supplied by the respected Dawn newspaper November 10, 2001. REUTERS/Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn

In a statement posted on an Islamist website forum on Monday, the caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Baker al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi, mourned bin Laden’s death.

“I tell our brothers in al Qaeda organization and on the top of them Sheikh Mujahid Ayman al-Zawahiri ... be merry, you have faithful men in the Islamic State of Iraq who are following the right path and will not quit or be forced out,” he said in the statement.

“I swear by God, blood for blood and destruction for destruction,” he said in a clear reference to revenge attacks for bin Laden’s death.

The statement by al Qaeda in Iraq made it the first group to throw its weight publicly behind Zawahiri, who is widely expected to succeed bin Laden.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian-born doctor, met bin Laden in the mid-1980s when both were in Pakistan to support guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. His current whereabouts are unknown.

In a separate statement, ISI claimed responsibility for an attack at a police building in the mainly Shi’ite city of Hilla, in which more than 20 people were killed.

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Thursday, a suicide bomber rammed his car into the entrance of a police headquarters in the center of Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, during a shift change when many officers were outside the building.

Iraq’s army and police have been on high alert for revenge attacks since bin Laden’s killing by U.S. commandos in Pakistan. Iraq became an important battlefield for al Qaeda after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Security officials have said bin Laden’s death earlier this month may have little practical impact on al Qaeda in Iraq, a weakened but still deadly Islamist insurgency that could launch strikes for the next decade.

Al Qaeda in Iraq may seek immediate revenge for the killing of the world’s most wanted man but in the long run probably will be more a thorn in the Iraqi government’s side than a destabilizing force, security officials said.

ISI is believed by intelligence analysts to have been created by al Qaeda in Iraq as a local umbrella group for insurgent organizations.

Reporting by Rania El Gamal; editing by Myra MacDonald