A new message posted online purportedly from al Qaida in Iraq asks Sunni fighters who switched sides and joined forces with the US and Iraqi government to return to the insurgent group, promising to forgive them and admitting that their departure had weakened the militants.
The begging-like tone and the wide-open promises of forgiveness to members of the government-backed Sunni militia known as Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, would mark an abrupt shift for al Qaida in Iraq if it is authentic.
Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who identified himself as the official spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida front group, also threatened to slaughter those he was trying to recruit if they insist on continuing to fight alongside the government.
"We call upon you to repent truly and come back to your religion and he who returns will be accepted by us and his blood will be conserved even if he had killed a thousand Muslims," al-Adnani said.
The authenticity of the hour-long audio could not be verified, but it was posted Monday on militant websites affiliated with al Qaida.
The plea was the latest sign of the group's problems. Last month, al Qaida militants in Iraq made an online appeal for new fundraising ideas, saying they were in dire need of money to help thousands of widows and children of slain fighters.
Tens of thousands of Sunni fighters, mostly members or sympathizers of al Qaida, switched sides and joined U.S. and government forces at the height of Iraq's insurgency. Their support created a crucial turning point in the war against al Qaida in 2007.
Since then, the Sahwa say they haven't been given jobs fitting to their contribution in the war and still feel they're viewed with suspicion by the Shiite-led government.
After the government disarmed thousands of Sahwa fighters and sent some to jail, al Qaida launched a series of attacks killing dozens of them and leading others to return to the insurgent group.
"Now who will protect you from our blows after your masters, the Americans, abandoned you and left you alone and the government filled its prisons with your men after you handed them the land of the Sunnis," al-Adnani said.
Al-Adnani acknowledged that the Sahwa fighters were "able to see us but we were not able to see you ... now we are able to attack you but you can't attack us."
A prominent Sahwa leader dismissed al-Adnani's threats, and vowed to continue the fight against al Qaida.
"Our sole project is to fight al Qaida in Iraq ... we will not give up fighting until al Qaida is eliminated," said Ahmed Abu Risha, the leader of the Anbar province Awakening Council.
Western Anbar province, the former al Qaida in Iraq stronghold, was the birthplace of the Sahwa militia.
"There will be no truce and this war will persist until handing over the last (al Qaida) fighter to authorities or burying him," said Abu Risha, who lost 30 relatives, including his brother who founded the Sahwa.
Al-Adnani said al Qaida remains active in Iraq. He claimed responsibility for the assassination of three judges in Baghdad who convicted al Qaida members and sentenced them to death.