(Reuters) - Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate has asked Sunni militia members who turned against the insurgency and joined forces with the U.S. military and the Shi'ite-led government to return to its ranks, threatening to attack those who do not "repent."
In an hour-long audio speech, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said the group was growing stronger "despite all the difficulties and challenges" and was still training and sheltering foreign fighters, the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group said late Monday.
"As for you, satanic Awakenings, we strive to guide you more than you strive to kill us. If you come to us in repentance, we will accept your repentance even if you killed a million people," Adnani said, according to SITE.
"Do not stand in the way between us and the (Shi'ites) ... We will not get bored or tired; rather, we will continue until the Day of Judgment, and we will kill from amongst you only those who we see will never return."
The Sahwa militia, or Awakening Council, made up of former insurgents who turned against al Qaeda and helped turn the tide of the Iraq war, was formed in late 2006, mostly by Sunni sheikhs with the help of the U.S. military during the sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands of people.
The integration of the former Sahwa fighters into the government is considered a key to stabilizing Iraq, eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and before a full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of this year.
The Sahwa are increasingly concerned that the new Shi'ite-led government is not carrying out a promise to hire them. Two years ago the Pentagon criticized the slow pace of integration, saying that a failure to hire the Sahwa fighters could jeopardize security gains.
Jobless Sahwa could return to a weakened but still lethal insurgency that carries out dozens of attacks each month.
While overall violence has plunged since the 2006-07 bloodshed, bombings and other attacks occur every day, and occasional major attacks kill dozens of people. Sahwa militia members are frequent targets.
Adnani said the ISC was still carrying out hit and run attacks despite rumors the insurgency had been weakened by the arrests and killings of its leaders, and ordered Iraqi officials not to execute jailed Muslims.
"Know that if you execute Muslim women and men in general and the mujahideen (fighters) in particular, you will face dire consequences," he said. "Everyone knows that when we say, we deliver."