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Video raises stakes for U.S.-born cleric

Anwar al-Awlaki called for attacks on American civilians in his clearest link yet to al-Qaeda.

CAIRO, Egypt - A U.S.-born cleric who has encouraged Muslims to kill American soldiers called for the killing of U.S. civilians in his first video released by a Yemeni offshoot of al-Qaeda, providing the most overt link yet between the radical preacher and the terror group.

Dressed in a white Yemeni robe and turban, with a traditional dagger in his waistband, Anwar al-Awlaki used the 45-minute video posted Sunday to justify and encourage civilian deaths by accusing the United States of intentionally killing a million Muslim civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

American civilians are to blame, Awlaki said, because "the American people, in general, are taking part in this, and they elected this administration and they are financing the war."

"Those who might be killed in a plane are merely a drop of water in a sea," he said in the video in response to a question about Muslim groups that disapproved of the December attempt to blow up a U.S. jetliner bound for Detroit.

Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and is believed to be hiding in his parents' native Yemen, has used his personal website to encourage Muslims worldwide to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

He has emerged as a prominent al-Qaeda recruiter, and U.S. intelligence has tied him to the 9/11 hijackers and the suspects in the December airliner plot and November shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

Awlaki is of particular concern for U.S. officials because his English makes him one of the few radical clerics able to explain to young Muslims in America and other Western countries the philosophy of violent jihad.

His direct role in al-Qaeda, if any, remains unclear. The United States says he is a participant, though members of his tribe have denied that.

Sunday's video was produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's media arm, which touted the recording as its first interview with Awlaki. It may also indicate al-Qaeda is trying to seize upon his recruiting prowess by featuring him in its videos.

In the months before the Fort Hood shooting, which killed 13 people, Awlaki exchanged e-mail with the alleged attacker, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

Yemen's government says Awlaki is also suspected of contacts with the airliner suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who traveled to Yemen last year. U.S. investigators say Abdulmutallab told them that he had received training and his bomb from Yemen's al-Qaeda offshoot.

In Sunday's video, Awlaki praised both men as his "students."

What Hasan did "was heroic and great," the cleric said, adding: "I ask every Muslim serving in the U.S. Army to follow suit."

Because of what U.S. officials view as Awlaki's growing al-Qaeda role, the Obama administration placed him on the CIA's list of assassination targets despite his citizenship.

Awlaki studied civil engineering at Colorado State University, then education at San Diego State University, followed by doctoral work at George Washington University. He was also a preacher at mosques in California and Virginia before returning to Yemen in 2004.

"We have had more freedom in America than in any Muslim country," he said in the video. "But when America started to feel the danger of Islam's message, it tightened limits on freedom, and after 9/11 it was impossible to live in America as a Muslim."