CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — Al-Qaida’s No. 2 said in an audiotape released Friday that the United States will lose whether it stays in Iraq or withdraws, and he sneered that President Bush just wants to pass the problem on to his successor.

The message from Ayman al-Zawahri released early Friday on a militant Web site appeared to be one of the most quickly prepared tapes produced by al-Qaida — referring to Congressional testimony only last week by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, in which he recommended a halt to further U.S. troop withdrawals until after July.

Bush said last week he would give Petraeus all the time needed to reassess U.S. troop strength in Iraq after the current drawdown of U.S. troops ends in July.

“The truth is that if Bush keeps all his forces in Iraq until doomsday and until they enter hell, they will only see crisis and defeat by the will of God,” said al-Zawahri, the deputy of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

“If the American forces leave, they will lose everything. And if they stay, they will bleed to death,” he said.

The authenticity of the 16-minute recording, entitled “Five Years of the Invasion of Iraq and Decades of Injustice by Tyrants,” could not be independently verified. But it carried the logo of al-Qaida’s media wing. It was the second message this month attributed to the terror network’s chief strategist.

Bush’s stance guarantees a heavy U.S. military presence in Iraq for the rest of his presidency as the war grinds into its sixth year. The Bush administration plans to shrink the current force of 160,000 American troops in Iraq to about 140,000 by the end of July.

“Bush declared that he will grant Petraeus all the time he needs, a ridiculous show to cover up for the failure in Iraq and to allow Bush to evade the decision to withdraw the forces, which is an admission of the failure of the crusader invasion of Iraq, by passing the problem on to the next president,” al-Zawahri said.

Al-Qaida leaders have sped up their reactions to events with such messages — a sign of the sophistication of the group’s media network despite having to work underground. Even so, usually messages refer to events that took place several weeks earlier, so the reference to Petraeus marked an unusually fast turnaround.

Al-Zawahri also called in his latest message for Muslim support of jihad in Iraq, and for backing al-Qaida’s affiliate there, the Islamic State of Iraq.

He taunted the so-called Awakening Councils in Iraq — Sunni fighters who switched sides and joined the Americans in fighting predominantly Sunni al-Qaida militants.

“Weren’t these Awakening (Councils) supposed to hasten the departure of the American forces, or are these Awakenings in need of someone to defend them and protect them,” al-Zawahri asked.

Al-Qaida in Iraq fighters have increasingly targeted Awakening Council members, killing around a dozen in shootings and bombings in the past week. On Thursday, a suicide bomber struck the funeral of two council members north of Baghdad, killing 50 mourners.

Al-Zawahri criticized anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has ordered his militia in Iraq to halt attacks on American and Iraqi forces. He “has become the laughing stock of the world” and is a “toy” in Iran’s hands, he said.

The al-Qaida deputy — whose group is made up of Sunni extremists — also spoke out against mainly Shiite Iran and what he called its expansionist plans.

He said Tehran “has clear goals, which are the annexation of southern Iraq and the east of the Arabian Peninsula” as well as strengthening ties to its followers in southern Lebanon.

He said that if Iran achieves its goals, “this will add oil to the fire which is already ablaze. This will explode the situation in an already exploding region.”

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