BAGHDAD - Iraqi militants said on Thursday they would fight for "months and years" to free their country from U.S.-led occupation as their nemesis President Bush was inaugurated in Washington for a second term.
Hours before Bush was sworn, a group led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released an audio tape urging Islamist militants to prepare for a lengthy holy war.
The group, which has staged most of the deadliest suicide attacks in Iraq in the run-up to elections on Jan. 30, said it was crushing the morale of "tyrant" America.
Another Iraqi insurgent group, Ansar al-Sunna, said it had killed a Briton and a Swede although the authenticity of the group's claim, posted on the Internet, could not be verified.
London-based Janusian Security Risk Management, which on Wednesday said a British and an Iraqi employee had been killed and a foreign national was missing, said the missing employee was a Brazilian and they know nothing about a dead Swede.
The U.S. military said a Briton's body had been found and brought to a base near the northern town of Beiji, scene of a deadly attack by insurgents on Wednesday. The Americans said a Brazilian was missing as a result of the same attack.
PLEA FOR LIFE
Relatives pleaded for the lives of eight Chinese hostages as a deadline set by their captors for their execution neared.
On Tuesday, guerrillas released a video showing the Chinese workers being guarded by gunmen, and said they would kill them unless China -- which opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq -- clarified within 48 hours why its citizens were in the country.
Chinese President Hu Jintao has urged officials in Iraq to spare no effort to free the hostages.
As well as abductions, guerrillas trying to topple Iraq's interim government have launched a series of attacks ahead of Iraq's first multi-party elections in nearly half a century.
On Wednesday, at least five suicide bombers struck targets in Baghdad. The U.S. military said 26 people were killed.
The statement purporting to be from Zarqawi's group was a reminder of the threat Iraqis face as they prepare to vote.
"The fruits of jihad (holy war) come after much patience and a lengthy stay in the battlefield ... which could last months and years," said the speaker on the tape, who identified himself as Zarqawi himself.
"In the fight against the arrogant American tyrant who carries the flag of the cross, we find that despite its military might it is being crushed emotionally and morally."
The tape, posted on an Islamist Web site, was not dated but it referred to a religious feast day taking place on Thursday.
Bush made an allusion to his hotly contested policy in Iraq in his inauguration speech in Washington later.
"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," Bush said in an address to thousands of people gathered on Washington's Capitol Hill.
Next Sunday's election to choose a national assembly has divided Iraq. Most of the country's 60 percent Shi'ite majority strongly back the polls, expected to cement Shi'ite political dominance after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein.
But an insurgency raging in Iraq's Sunni Arab regions has disrupted election preparations there. Several leading Sunni Arab parties say they will boycott the poll as it is not safe for their supporters to vote.
A leading Shi'ite political party, part of a coalition expected to dominate the election, urged Sunnis to participate and said that even if they did not, it would not necessarily mean they would be excluded from government.
"Not winning in the elections does not mean absence from the stage of activity and impact," the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said in a statement.
Another Shi'ite leader played down fears that the insurgency and differences over the poll could lead to civil war.
"The background of those who are victimising Shi'ites might be Sunni, but there is wide understanding that they do not represent Sunni thinking," Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's vice president and head of the Dawa party, told Reuters. "Neither Sunnis nor Shi'ites are prepared to accept civil war."
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has insisted the vote go ahead on time, and Washington says any delay would only hand a victory to insurgents. Opinion polls conducted in the country show around 70 percent of Iraqis would like to vote if possible.
(Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Brian Rhoads in Beijing, Masayuki Kitano in Tokyo and Lin Noueihed in Baghdad)
© Reuters 2005