A raspy voice believed to be Osama bin Laden's urged Iraqis to carry out suicide attacks against Americans and draw US troops into combat in Iraqi cities. US officials said the call broadcast Tuesday proves the world must fear Saddam Hussein's ties to the al-Qaida terror network.
The appeal was made in a voice tape aired by the Al-Jazeera satellite television station throughout the Arab world.
"This nexus between terrorists and states that are developing weapons of mass destruction can no longer be looked away from and ignored," Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Budget Committee.
Some analysts wondered at bin Laden's motives for issuing a statement supporting Iraq, given many countries' skepticism of US allegations of Iraqi-al-Qaida links. Others worried the recording would inflame Muslims against US troops in the Persian Gulf region.
On the tape, broadcast on the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, the speaker advised Iraqis how to fight the Americans, based on al-Qaida's experience in Afghanistan.
"We stress the importance of martyrdom operations against the enemy, these attacks that have scared Americans and Israelis like never before," the man identified as bin Laden said.
"We advise about the importance of drawing the enemy into long, close and exhausting fighting, taking advantage of camouflaged positions in plains, farms, mountains and cities," he said.
The speaker urged the Iraqis to draw the Americans into urban combat, saying "the thing that the enemy fears the most is to fight a city war."
US military planners fear Saddam might ring Baghdad with his best troops of the elite Republican Guard and draw US forces into bloody street fighting where they could not use their high-tech weapons for fear of causing massive civilian casualties.
The speaker also told Iraqis not to worry about American smart bombs and laser-guided weapons because "they work on only the clear, obvious targets." He encouraged Iraqis to use deception techniques to neutralize American technological superiority.
US counterterrorism officials in Washington said the audio message was probably a real recording of bin Laden, and that a technical analysis was planned to authenticate it. The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was unclear when the recording was made but said it was probably recent, given all the attention the speaker gave to Iraq.
Yasser Thabet, a broadcast editor at Al-Jazeera, said the voice on the tape sounded like bin Laden's and the station assumed it was authentic. He said the tape was received by the same channels as previous bin Laden statements, but he did not give details.
Bin Laden often used Al-Jazeera to broadcast statements during the Afghanistan war until the elusive terrorist leader vanished after the battle at Tora Bora in December 2001.
Al-Jazeera is not widely seen in Iraq because few Iraqis are permitted to have satellite dishes. However, many of them listen to foreign Arabic language broadcasts which relayed details of the broadcast.
There was no immediate comment from the Iraqi government, which has repeatedly denied links with al-Qaida.
Counterterrorism officials have said they are concerned Islamic extremists will go to Iraq to conduct suicide or other attacks against advancing US forces. But the officials said they don't yet have evidence extremists are planning such attacks in any numbers.
Bin Laden's previous statements have not gone nearly as far in expressing solidarity with Iraq, they said.
On the tape, the speaker urged other Muslims not to cooperate with the United States in a showdown against Iraq. He criticized Arab governments that support UN efforts to rid Iraq of alleged weapons of mass destruction.
"Anyone who helps America, from the Iraqi hypocrites (opposition) or Arab rulers ... whoever fights with them or offers them bases or administrative assistance, or any kind of support or help, even if only with words, to kill Muslims in Iraq, should know that he is an apostate," the speaker said.
The speaker also called on Muslims to rise up and "break free from the slavery of these tyrannic and apostate regimes, which is enslaved by America," singling out Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Some Middle East experts have questioned ties between bin Laden's Islamic extremists and Saddam's government, which nominally adheres to a Pan-Arabic socialistic doctrine called Baathism.
In the tape, however, the speaker said it was acceptable for Muslims to fight on behalf of Iraqi "socialists" because "in these circumstances" their interests "intersect in fighting against the Crusaders," or Christians.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the tape shows that Saddam and bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, are "bound by a common hatred" of America and its Arab allies.
"I think the statement shows that al-Qaida still represents a danger to us all," Boucher said in an interview broadcast by Al-Jazeera with an Arabic voiceover.
"He threatens everybody in the Arab world except Saddam Hussein," Boucher said of bin Laden. "I think it threatens not only the US but half a dozen Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and others and the whole world."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the tape gives "further proof" and "great concern" to the administration's claims of ties between al-Qaida and Iraq.
Hours before the tape was broadcast, Powell told a Senate panel that he had learned of the new statement "where once again" bin Laden "speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq."
In remarks to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Powell accused Iraq of harboring al-Qaida fugitive Abu Musaab Zarqawi, who has been linked to the murder of a US diplomat in Jordan and poison plots in a half-dozen European countries.
"We are not surprised that Iraq is harboring Zarqawi and his subordinates," Powell said. "Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and al-Qaida together."
Not all observers were convinced of an Iraqi-al-Qaida connection, however.
An expert on counterterrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Jonathan Stevenson, called the link to Zarqawi "significant," but noted that Powell failed to tie Iraq to any previous al-Qaida operation.
(China Daily February 12, 2003)