Washington is pointing to a new audiotape in which Osama bin Laden purportedly urges Muslims to defend Iraq against any U.S. attack as proof that Baghdad and Al-Qaeda are connected. But the tape, broadcast on an Arabic television news channel yesterday, also criticizes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, making the American case to tie Al-Qaeda and Iraq more problematic.
Washington, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With Washington and the world focusing on Iraq, the planet's most wanted terrorist suspect is suddenly stealing the spotlight.
"We stress the importance of martyrdom attacks against the enemy," he said. "These attacks inflicted on America and Israel a disaster they have never experienced before."
That is allegedly the voice of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born fugitive Washington accuses of masterminding the 11 September terrorist attacks on America, which killed some 3,000 people and sparked a worldwide U.S.-led war on terrorism.
In an audio statement broadcast yesterday on Al-Jazeera, an Arabic news network based in Qatar, a voice alleged to be bin Laden's accuses the U.S. of seeking to wage war on Iraq in order to control its oil wealth and prepare the region for Israeli dominance. He urges Muslims to rise up and repel any American attack on Baghdad.
U.S. officials say the recording quality is good and that the voice sounds like bin Laden's, though specialists will need a few days to analyze it before they can give a definite assessment.
But the voice -- if it is bin Laden's -- does not express support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or his secular government, which he calls "socialist" and full of "infidels." Rather, he says Muslims should defend the Iraqi people.
"The fighting should be in the name of God only, not in the name of national ideologies, nor to seek victory for the ignorant governments that rule all Arab states, including Iraq," he said.
Despite bin Laden's dissociation from the Iraqi government, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the statement proves that bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network has ties to Iraq:
"I read the transcript of what bin Laden, or who we believe to be bin Laden, will be saying on Al-Jazeera during the course of the day, and you will be seeing this as the day unfolds, where once again he speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq." Powell cited this as a reason the U.S. could not rely on containing Iraq with more arms inspectors and a larger United Nations presence, as France and Germany are calling for.
"This nexus between terrorists and states that are developing weapons of mass destruction can no longer be looked away from and ignored," Powell said.
The statement is the latest in a series of videos and audiotapes apparently released by bin Laden during the past year. Some of the tapes have either preceded or followed terrorist attacks.
Last week, Washington said recent intelligence shows America is now at a heightened risk for terrorist attacks. Yesterday, George Tenet, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that Al-Qaeda may be poised to strike targets at home or abroad.
"The information we have points to plots aimed at targets on two fronts -- in the United States and on the Arabian peninsula," Tenet said. "It points to plots timed to occur as early as the end of the hajj, which occurs late this week, and it points to plots that could include the use of a radiological dispersal device, as well as poisons and chemicals."
Tenet added that Al-Qaeda has established a presence in Iraq and Iran and continues to find refuge in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iraq denies it has any ties to Al-Qaeda.
How the purported bin Laden tape may affect the drive by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to disarm Iraq, possibly through war, is unclear.
Raymond Tanter, a member of former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, is a professor at the University of Michigan. Tanter tells RFE/RL that the tape cuts both ways for the White House.
"The administration case is better off when Osama bin Laden says that he is trying to defend the Iraqi people. So the administration is going to play that part up, very smartly. And when Osama bin Laden criticizes Saddam Hussein, that is not going to be played up by the administration," Tanter said.
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers from the opposition Democratic Party seized on the tape to accuse the Bush administration of neglecting the war on terrorism by focusing almost exclusively on Iraq.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, accusing Bush of ignoring Al-Qaeda and nuclear weapons development by North Korea, criticized the administration's homeland-defense preparations. U.S. officials have called on Americans to prepare for possible attacks by buying items such as duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal their homes in case of biological, chemical or radiological attack.
Daschle said: "We have to do better than duct tape as our response to homeland defense."