DUBAI (Reuters) - The head of an al Qaeda-led group in Iraq has offered a $100,000 reward for the killing of a Swedish cartoonist for his drawing of Islam's Prophet Mohammad and threatened to attack major Swedish companies.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq, also offered $50,000 to anyone who killed the editor of the newspaper that published the drawing by Lars Vilks.
Sweden's Nerikes Allehanda daily published the drawing, part of a series which art galleries in Sweden had declined to display, last month.
The controversy follows major protests by Muslims around the world last year against the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons Muslims felt insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
"From now on we announce the call to shed the blood of the Lars who dared to insult our Prophet ... and during this munificent month we announce an award worth $100,000 to the person who kills this infidel criminal," Baghdadi said in the 31-minute audiotape posted on an Islamist Web site on Saturday.
"The award will be increased to $150,000 if he were to be slaughtered like a lamb.
"We know how to force them to withdraw and apologise, and if they don't, they can wait for our strikes on their economy and giant companies such as Ericsson, Volvo, Ikea ..." He also mentioned the companies Scania and Electrolux.
Vilks, contacted by Reuters, said he did not take the threat very seriously, though he was in touch with the police.
"These people represent a very small branch of our Muslims. They work with noisy threats," Vilks said by telephone.
"But I can, of course, not entirely disregard such a threat. I am regularly in contact with the police."
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Vilks defended the artist's right to freedom of expression.
"It is fundamental for Western thinking to be able to express one's artistry without making exceptions for holiness. I had no murky motives, no racist motives and so on. It was initially a very modest local exhibition and the situation has changed little by little," he said.
Swedish police spokesman Torsten Persson said the police had opened an investigation into unlawful threats but Vilks was not under police protection.
"He is in Germany at the moment and as far as I know we still haven't been able to reach him today," Persson said.
The newspaper published the image, depicting the head of the Prophet on the body of a dog, in what it called a defence of free speech. Islam does not allow images of the Prophet and Muslims consider dogs to be unclean.
Telecom equipment giant Ericsson spokeswoman Ase Lindskog said the firm had stepped up security in the Middle East.
"We have taken some concrete actions, like taking away our flags from buildings where we have our sales offices," she said.
Appliance maker Electrolux's spokesman Anders Edholm said the firm was trying to find out more about the threat and had not decided on any response.
Muslim countries including Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan expressed anger over the caricature, published on Aug. 27.
Baghdadi indirectly admonished Gulf Arab states, which he referred to as "worshippers of the dirham and dinar", for not taking a stand when the honour of Muslims had been violated.
A major Swedish Muslim group rejected Baghdadi's threats.
"The Swedish Muslim Council definitely repudiates and at the same time condemns threats against individuals or Swedish institutions," The Swedish Muslim Council said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson, Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm)
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