The leader of al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, said on Friday the group had not meant to blow up Muslims in deadly bomb attacks that have provoked an angry backlash in Jordan.
In an Internet audiotape, he warned Jordanians of more attacks and threatened a possible attempt on the life of King Abdullah, ruler of the key U.S. ally which is one of only two Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Suicide bombs killed 54 people in Amman hotels last week, provoking outrage in Jordan despite the high level of support in the country for the activities of Jordanian-born Zarqawi in Iraq. Most victims were Muslim Jordanians at wedding parties.
In the tape, posted on an Islamist Web site often used by insurgent groups in Iraq, Zarqawi defended the blasts saying al Qaida had inside information that they were used by U.S., Israeli and Jordanian intelligence agencies.
"We ask God to have mercy on the Muslims, who we did not intend to target, even if they were in hotels which are centers of immorality," the voice on the tape said.
"The idea that they blew up inside wedding ceremonies is a lie by the Jordanian regime...the target was a meeting of intelligence agencies, but a roof collapsed on a wedding party from the blast," he said.
Verification not possible
The voice sounded like Zarqawi's but it was not possible to verify the authenticity of the tape immediately.
"The CIA is aware of the tape and we are looking into it," a U.S. official said in Washington, adding that Zarqawi was worried about the angry Arab reaction to the latest attacks.
A poll published in Jordan this week showed two-thirds of Jordanians had changed their views of al Qaida for the worse.
"What we're seeing is him (Zarqawi) going to great lengths to try to justify the selection of targets, in part because of the criticisms in the Muslim world," a U.S. counter-terrorism official told Reuters.
Zarqawi warned Jordan's King Abdullah he could meet the same fate as a tribal warrior who fought the Prophet Mohammad.
"Here is another message to the little tyrant of Jordan. I address you after you threatened a nasty fate for those behind the blasts. Listen to these words," he said, before relating the tale of Abu Jahl, who Muslim lore says lost his head in battle.
"If you do not listen, you could end up with the same fate...your star is already descending," he added.
Indicating there might be further attacks, Zarqawi warned ordinary Jordanians to avoid large hotels, military installations and embassies of countries involved in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Al Qaida in Iraq had already claimed responsibility for the Jordan blasts and named the attackers as four Iraqis, one of them a woman. She failed to blow herself up, confessing on Jordanian television last week that she had tried.
"We chose these hotels after over two months of thorough checks with trusted sources inside the hotels and elsewhere showed that they were centers for the Jewish, U.S. and Jordanian security apparatus," Zarqawi said.
Al Qaida in Iraq is one of the main groups leading an insurgency against U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed government.