Islamic group calls Blair 'legitimate target'

As Prime Minister Tony Blair toured the Middle East, a London-based radical Islamic group called him "a legitimate target" for assassination because Britain has joined the U.S.-led military strikes against Afghanistan.

The statement by the extremist Al Muhajiroun, which has been skirting British anti-terrorism laws, was published on the front page of the London-based Arabic newspaper, Al Sharq al Awsat, on Wednesday along with a photograph of Blair.

The group said the prime minister's official residence and British, American and French military installations are also considered military targets by radical Muslims.

"Now after the British, American and, most likely, French allies have started airstrikes against Afghanistan, the military installations and 10 Downing St. have become legitimate targets," Abdul Rahman Salim, a spokesman for the group, told the newspaper.

"This applies to Prime Minister Blair, who is also a legitimate target," Salim said. "This means that if a Muslim wants to kill him or get rid of him, I would not shed a tear for him."

Salim made the statement to the Arabic newspaper in a telephone interview from Lahore, Pakistan, as Blair arrived in the Arabian Peninsula state of Oman to review British troops on military exercises there.

The remarks by Salim echoed the latest threats against American targets by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and came as BBC television apologized to the government for having broken a blackout on reporting Blair's travel plans.

The prime minister's office said the embargo was necessary for security reasons since Britain is playing such a key role in the campaign against bin Laden, who is the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that is sheltering him.

Blair has led the political offensive to make the case against bin Laden and shore up international support for the United States' war on terrorism.

Al Muhajiroun founder Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed was careful not to repeat the threat in London.

"We never said that (Blair is a target). We are not allowed to Islamically, and we are Muslims living here legally. We don't call for the assassination of anybody, prime ministers or anybody else," Bakri said in a telephone interview.

But he told Al Sharq al Awsat that under Sharia, or Islamic religious law, "if Blair enters a Muslim country, then he is a legitimate target because he has attacked a Muslim country."

The Syrian-born Bakri founded Al Muhajiroun in 1983 and has been living legally in Britain since 1986, when he was expelled from Saudi Arabia for calling for the overthrow of the monarchy there. He shares bin Laden's view that the West is engaged in a holy war against the Islamic world, and says Muslims have a right to fight back.

Al Muhajiroun describes itself as a legal organization that engages in political debate and advocates worldwide Islamic rule. But it has been testing the boundaries of Britain's new anti-terrorism law, which makes it illegal to support terrorism abroad. The group says the law is so broadly defined that it will not stand up in court.

The government also says it will soon introduce legislation banning racial and religious incitement. Bakri insists he does neither, but he has said that he would not mind being jailed in a crackdown on Muslims, apparently believing that his imprisonment would bolster his cause.

Police may well agree. Scotland Yard has long monitored his statements and movements and visited his North London offices again last week after he called for an Islamic trial and possible death sentence of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is cooperating with the U.S. military campaign against bin Laden.

Scotland Yard issued a statement Wednesday that the comments attributed to Salim are under investigation. Al Muhajiroun refused to say whether Salim is a British citizen and thus bound by British law. "That's irrelevant. We've said he's a spokesman. His personal details are irrelevant," said Anjem Choudary, the group's legal adviser.