"The American invader forces claim that al-Zarqawi, and with him a group of Arab fighters, are in our city," a masked man read from a piece of paper on Friday.

   

"We know that this talk about al-Zarqawi and the fighters is a game the American invader forces are playing to strike Islam and Muslims in the city of mosques, steadfast Falluja."

   

The United States believes al-Zarqawi, accused of leading a bloody campaign of bombings and of decapitating an American and a South Korean captive, has played a significant role in the violence gripping Iraq.

   

On the tape, five men holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and machine gun said local fighters were defending their hometown - sometimes known as the "city of mosques".

 

Bombing

   

US occupation forces over the past week bombed houses they said were hideouts for al-Zarqawi's fighters.

   

"We know that this talk about al-Zarqawi and the fighters is a game the American invader forces are playing to strike Islam and Muslims in the city of mosques, steadfast Falluja" 

Masked man in video message

A group led by al-Zarqawi, who Washington says has links to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks in Iraq on Thursday in which at least 100 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.

   

In one of the attacks, scores of black-clad fighters, some wearing headbands with the name of al-Zarqawi's group, attacked a police station and other government buildings in Baquba, northwest of Baghdad.

   

Iraq's interim national security minister said on Thursday that Iraqi officials had good intelligence on al-Zarqawi - who this week threatened to assassinate Iraq's prime minister - and plan to pursue him after the formal transfer of power next week.

   

The US has offered a $10 million reward for his capture.

   

In April, hundreds of Iraqis were killed in Falluja in fierce fighting between marines and fighters.

 

A truce was agreed to under which marines withdrew from the city and an Iraqi force took over responsibility for security.