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Reuters | November 10, 2006

BAGHDAD - A purported audio recording by the leader of Iraq's al Qaeda wing gloated over the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as a top U.S. general said the military was preparing to recommend strategy changes.

Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, said in the recording posted on the Internet on Friday that the group had 12,000 armed fighters and 10,000 others waiting to be equipped to fight U.S. troops in Iraq.

"I tell the lame duck (U.S. administration) do not rush to escape as did your defense minister...stay on the battle ground," he said.

He said his group would not rest until it had blown up the presidential mansion in Washington.

"I swear by God we shall not rest from jihad until we...blow up the filthiest house known as the White House," the voice on the recording said.

Stung by a "thumping" defeat in Tuesday's congressional elections, President George W. Bush said Rumsfeld had resigned because there was a need for "fresh perspective" in Iraq.

Bush said he was open to any idea for a new approach and publicly reaffirmed a belief that "victory" was possible.

The Pentagon's top general said on Friday U.S. military leaders were preparing to recommend changes in Iraq strategy but Rumsfeld's departure would not have a direct effect.

"We have to give ourselves a good honest scrub about what is working and what is not working, what are the impediments to progress and what should we change about the way we are doing it to make sure that we get to the objective that we set for ourselves," General Peter Pace, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on the "Early Show" on CBS television

"The change in leadership itself will not have a direct impact on what we do or don't do in Iraq," Pace said. "We continuously review what's going right, what's going wrong, what needs to change."

Rumsfeld will be replaced by former CIA director Robert Gates, a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group assessing alternative strategies for Iraq.

SECTARIAN VIOLENCE

The big question for most Iraqis is whether the change of guard will mean a swifter withdrawal of U.S. troops. Opinions are sharply divided over whether that would be a good thing for a country riven by sectarian violence.

On Thursday in Baghdad alone, six car bombs and four roadside bombs killed 18 people and wounded dozens, and police found the bodies of 26 people shot dead, some of them tortured. Mortar fire killed another three and wounded 30.

Baghdad was under a regular curfew on Friday to avoid violence on the Muslim day of prayer. In Tal Afar in northwest Iraq, a suicide car bomb hit an army checkpoint on Friday, killing a colonel and four soldiers and wounding 17, police said.

The U.S. military said three soldiers were killed by two separate roadside bombs on Thursday. A Marine died of wounds on Thursday following combat in Anbar province, where Sunni rebels are fighting in the west.

Health Minister Ali al-Shemari was quoted on Thursday as saying about 150,000 Iraqis had been killed since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and as many as 500,000 wounded.

Casualty figures are controversial, notably since the United Nations put the monthly civilian toll at more than 3,000 earlier this year and a group of medical statisticians estimated more than 650,000 might have been killed since the U.S. invasion.

Evidence of civilian casualties is scarce. The Iraqi government has tightened rules to prevent officials outside the prime minister's office releasing figures. Reuters typically reports several dozen killings a day, but many go unreported.

The Austrian APA news agency quoted Shemari as saying 35,000 Iraqis were being killed annually from attacks. He did not explain how he reached an estimated total of 150,000 dead.

Analysts have questioned Health Ministry data on casualties. The ministry is run by the political movement of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr whose Mehdi Army militia Washington has accused of running death squads, an allegation it denies.

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