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In Iraq, a clear-cut bin Laden-Zarqawi alliance

Audiotape of Al Qaeda leader, released Tuesday, coincided with deadly insurgent attacks.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 2004


The connection between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was cemented with Mr. bin Laden's latest taped statement on Tuesday, in which he praised the Jordanian militant and said anyone who participates in Iraq's Jan. 30 election will be considered an infidel and fair game for attack.

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When Mr. Zarqawi's terrorist movement emerged in Iraq more than a year ago, intelligence analysts saw it as separate from Al Qaeda, with more ferocious rhetoric than the better-known terror group and a willingness to kill large numbers of Muslim civilians.

But now, the US and its allies face a grave and growing threat: an alliance of mutual interests and convenience between the group that carried out the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the one that has contributed so much to Iraq's chaos.

"There were certainly some differences between bin Laden and Zarqawi,'' says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies. "But these differences were minor compared to the biggest things they have in common - their desire to hit at the US."

Preelection violence

Mr. bin Laden's statement coincided with a devastating spurt of insurgent activity inside Iraq. On Tuesday, insurgent attacks killed at least 54 people in the center of Iraq, including the detonation of a massive bomb in a house police were searching in Baghdad that killed at least 29, and 12 policemen who were captured and killed.

Wednesday the Assar al-Sunnah Army, the insurgent group that claimed responsibility for the Dec. 21 bombing of the US base in Mosul, signaled it would escalate attacks in the coming days by calling for a three-day "curfew" for civilians. In the statement, reported by the Associated Press, the group said, "All polling stations and those in them will be targets for our brave soldiers."

US and Iraqi officials concede that violence is likely to continue to grow as the elections draw nearer, but add they are determined to hold the elections on schedule, a plan which both bin Laden and Zarqawi are intent on disrupting.

The Zarqawi-bin Laden link

For bin Laden, the advantages of the alliance are clear, says Mr. Gunaratna. The operational capabilities of Al Qaeda have been relentlessly trimmed back by the US since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but he and most of his ideological core remain free.

Since the Iraq invasion, bin Laden has repeatedly called Iraq a battleground against the "crusader" West, even as Zarqawi has emerged as his principal agent. Zarqawi has positioned himself at the head of a growing network that US officials believe has been behind more than 70 car-bombings inside Iraq and "now makes him the de facto operational head of the Al Qaeda movement, not the Al Qaeda group, worldwide,'' says Gunaratna.

Zarqawi and his fighters were the target of the US siege on Fallujah last month. But US officials say they suspect many of the militants escaped Fallujah to other Sunni cities such as Mosul, which has been the scene of recent insurgent attacks.

By combining their resources, Zarqawi and Al Qaeda seem to be aiming to further amplify their message of total war against the US, the Middle Eastern regimes it favors, and Israel, with an expanded Internet reach and ongoing attacks against US and Iraqi forces.

The Sunni-Shiite split

Bin Laden's latest statement urged Muslims to attack the US and any Iraqis that work with the interim arrangements, including voters and election workers. In the two-minute, five-second audio tape, he referred to what he sees as "the third world war," led by the "Crusader Zionist Alliance" against Muslims who, in turn, "have a rare and precious opportunity to get out of the dependency and slavery to the West."

Zarqawi originally called his group Tawhid and Jihad, and his first statement of note in Iraq was peppered with venomous anti-Shiite attacks. Analysts once thought Bin Laden was unwilling to call for all out war between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, the dominant Muslim sect of which both bin Laden and Zarqawi belong.