Bin Laden tape exhorts Iraqis

WASHINGTON - An emotionless voice believed to be that of Osama bin Laden pledged solidarity yesterday with "our brothers in Iraq" and urged the Iraqi people to carry out suicide attacks if invaded by U.S.-led forces.

"We stress the importance of martyrdom operations against the enemy," the speaker said in an audiotape that was broadcast by Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel. He said such attacks "have scared Americans and Israelis like never before."

The speaker offered no information about whether Saddam Hussein's regime has supported or cooperated with al-Qaida.

Still, Bush administration officials pointed to the tape, and to the speaker's call for Iraqis to commit terrorism, as further evidence that Iraq is allied with the al-Qaida network. President Bush has made that assertion as part of his effort to amass international and domestic support for a war to disarm Hussein.

Al-Jazeera, based in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, has broadcast bin Laden's remarks in the past. It was not clear when or where the 16-minute recording was made. But outside analysts and administration officials said they were all but certain that the voice on the audiotape was bin Laden's.

Bin Laden was last heard from publicly Nov. 12, when another audiotape aired a voice, thought to be his, that praised terrorist attacks in Moscow and Bali as retaliation for U.S. actions in Iraq and Israeli attacks against Palestinian-controlled land. That tape deflated speculation that bin Laden had been killed or had died of poor health because in it he referred to recent terrorist strikes.

In the new tape, the speaker boasted that some of his allies managed to withstand U.S.-led military attacks in Afghanistan by hiding in well-dug trenches. He urged the people of Iraq to defend themselves in a similar manner.

"With all the might of the enemy, they were unable to defeat us and take over that position," the man purported to be bin Laden said. "We hope that our brothers in Iraq will do the same as we did."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking on Al-Jazeera, said the recording demonstrated that Iraq and al-Qaida "are bound by a common hatred."

Bin Laden "threatens everybody in the Arab world except Saddam Hussein," Boucher said. "We are saying Iraq is giving a haven to this group."

Hours before the broadcast, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a Senate committee that he had reviewed a transcript of a new tape from "bin Laden - or who we believe to be bin Laden."

The al-Qaida leader "speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq," Powell said.

"This nexus between terrorists and states that are developing weapons of mass destruction can no longer be looked away from and ignored," he said.

At the White House, Bush made no comment about the recording. His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the new tape "gives great concern about the fact that Iraq and al-Qaida are working together."

It is unclear what, if any, effect bin Laden's message might have on Bush's strenuous drive to win public support, and backing from key allies, for invading Iraq.

Administration officials sought to use the new tape to strengthen their case that al-Qaida and Hussein are closely linked and that the United States cannot risk the chance that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of terrorists.

Yet the message from bin Laden also appeared to embolden critics who say Bush has focused too heavily on Iraq and paid too little attention to locating bin Laden and combating the threat from al-Qaida.

In recent speeches, the president has seldom spoken of bin Laden. He did not, for example, mention him in his State of the Union speech last month, when he dealt in great detail with Iraq.

Polls have shown that most Americans think bin Laden poses a greater peril to the United States than Hussein's regime does.

"I don't think we've put enough weight on ... the war on terror and the very real possibility that bin Laden continues to threaten this country," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said yesterday. "I'm very concerned about our lack of direct attention, our lack of commitment in the effort to find bin Laden and to destroy the al-Qaida network."

The person believed to be bin Laden, speaking in Arabic with an English translation, opened his remarks by saying he was offering a message to "our brothers in Iraq."

"We are following with great concern the preparations of the crusaders to launch war on the former capital of Muslims and to install a puppet government," he said, calling on Iraqis to "fight the allies of the Devil."

The speaker declared that the United States was hoping, through an eventual occupation of Iraq, to move toward establishing a "Greater Israel."

It was not known how broadly the message reached the Iraqi people yesterday. Satellite dishes are banned in Iraq, but Arab-language networks that broadcast there aired the tape.

In his message to Iraqis, the speaker seemed to be trying to incite religiously charged violence in a secular Muslim state that is not known to produce suicide terrorists. Bin Laden's brand of Islamic fanaticism does not have broad appeal in Iraq, even among those who rail against the policies of the West.

Some critics of the administration's view that Iraq supports and harbors al-Qaida note that Hussein has endured an uneasy relationship with religious extremists, whom he has viewed as a threat to his leadership.

Indeed, while reaching out to the Iraqi people, the speaker on the audiotape took a swipe at Hussein and his lieutenants, saying Iraqis should fight alongside the Iraqi leaders - even though they are "infidels" who "lost their legitimacy a long time ago."

Hussein has denied any ties to bin Laden's terrorist network, and the existence or extent of such ties has been the source of debate among U.S. intelligence officials.

One senior White House official dismissed doubts yesterday about the connection between Iraq and al-Qaida, saying the tape showed a "burgeoning alliance of terror" between the two.

Bin Laden "is making common cause with the Iraqis, and with the Iraqi regime, to repel any efforts to change that regime," the official said.

The speaker on the audiotape urged Muslims who live in nations that back the United States to "incite and organize" and to "liberate themselves from the slavery of these unjust and infidel regimes enslaved by the U.S."

"From among the most ready for liberation are Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen," he said.

The speaker warned any Arab rulers against supporting a U.S.-led war in Iraq, saying that "any other form of support or help, even verbal, to kill Muslims in Iraq, they should know that they are infidels deviating from their religion, and their blood is sanctioned."

In addition, the speaker called on Iraqis to "lead the enemy to prolonged and heavy and exhaustive fighting using the camouflage defense fight in plains, mountains, farms and cities."

He added: "What the enemy fears most is the war of cities and streets - that war that the enemy expects tremendous, grave losses in."

Some U.S. military officials have expressed concerns about a war that compels American troops to engage in street fighting in cities such as Baghdad.

After previous bin Laden tapes have been released, administration officials have expressed concern that the terrorist leader was embedding his messages with secret orders to terrorist cells in the United States. White House aides said yesterday that intelligence officials were still studying the new tape.

Sun staff writers Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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