Zarqawi movement vows al-Qaida allegiance
The most feared militant group in Iraq, the movement of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared its allegiance to Osama bin Laden on Sunday, saying it had agreed with al-Qaida over strategy and the need for unity against "the enemies of Islam."
The declaration, which appeared on a Web site often used as a clearinghouse for statements by militant groups, began with a Quranic verse encouraging Muslim unity and said al-Zarqawi considered bin Laden "the best leader for Islam's armies against all infidels and apostates."
"God soon blessed us with a resumption in communication, and the dignified brothers in al-Qaida understood the strategy of Tawhid and Jihad," the statement said.
The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi is suspected of about a dozen high-profile attacks in Iraq, including last year's bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, and the beheading of numerous foreign hostages.
His relationship to bin Laden and the al-Qaida leadership has long been the subject of considerable speculation. Although many experts believe al-Zarqawi had longtime ties to al-Qaida, others suspected that al-Zarqawi considered himself a rival to bin Laden for the mantle of chief defender of the Muslim faith.
The Bush administration said it was still trying to confirm the report.
"But we've always said there were ties between Zarqawi and al-Qaida, which underscores once again why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said in Washington. "It's also proof positive of why the president's firm resolve to fight terrorists overseas so we don't face them in America's neighborhoods is the only clear way to prevail."
The statement affirmed the "allegiance of Tawhid and Jihad's leadership and soldiers to the chief of all fighters, Osama bin Laden." It said the announcement had been timed for the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when "Muslims need more than ever to stick together in the face of the religion's enemies."
"It's good tidings for our nation ... to spite the infidels and frighten the enemies of Islam."
The statement also endorsed bin Laden's goal to "expel the infidels from the Arabian peninsula" ¡ª a reference to American influence in the al-Qaida leader's native Saudi Arabia, birthplace of the Islamic faith.
Al-Zarqawi's declaration appeared two days after the U.S. government formally declared Tawhid and Jihad a terrorist organization. The listing imposes several restrictions on the group, including a ban on travel to the United States and a freeze on the group's assets in U.S. banks.
The United States, Britain and Iraq are asking the U.N. Sanctions Committee to list the al-Zarqawi group as well, which would impose identical sanctions worldwide.
Al-Zarqawi also was indicted Sunday in his native Jordan along with 12 other alleged Muslim militants on charges of plotting a chemical attack that could have killed thousands of people.
Al-Zarqawi and three of the others will be tried in absentia on charges including conspiring to commit terrorism, possessing and manufacturing explosives and affiliation with a banned group, according to the 24-page indictment made available Sunday to The Associated Press.
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe al-Zarqawi's movement is centered in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, where U.S. troops clashed Sunday with militants. However, Tawhid and Jihad banners have been seen recently in Samarra, Ramadi and even on the streets of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
In Cairo, Mohammed Salah, an expert on Islamic militancy, said the claim that bin Laden and al-Zarqawi were in regular contact was "more or less a media stunt to frustrate" their common opponent, the United States.
It appeared the announcement also was aimed at enabling al-Zarqawi, who has a background as a common criminal, to profit from bin Laden's stature among radical Muslims.
Bin Laden, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan or in the border areas of Pakistan, has faded somewhat from public view and recent declarations by al-Qaida's leadership have been made by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
On the other hand, al-Zarqawi's group has become highly visible, posting videos on the Web showing the beheading of foreign hostages and bloody attacks against American troops in Iraq.
"By virtue of his location, al-Zarqawi has more access to the Americans, which will make it easier for al-Qaida to carry out operations without logistical complications or time delays," Salah said. "Bin Laden is on the run and hiding. He's become a symbol, as opposed to al-Zarqawi's actual presence on the ground that has made him a definite planner and executor."
The indictment in Jordan alleged that al-Zarqawi sent more than $118,000 to buy two vehicles that would be driven into Jordan's General Intelligence Department by suicide bombers armed with explosives and chemicals.
The indictment said the defendants had collected geographical data indicating thousands of people would be killed in the chemical blast.
Nine other men who are in custody in Jordan face the same charges, while a 13th suspect faces lesser charges of helping two of the fugitives. If convicted in the military court, 12 of the men face the death penalty.
U.S. officials said they intercepted a letter in January from al-Zarqawi to the al-Qaida leadership in which the Jordanian terrorist complained that his fighters were under strong pressure from U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi claimed in the letter, which was released by the Americans, that he was responsible for about 25 attacks in Iraq. Since then the number of attacks claimed by or attributed to al-Zarqawi has risen sharply.