Monday, October 18, 2004 - U.S. & World - Tawhid and Jihad Declares Al Qaeda Alliance

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The most feared militant group in Iraq, the movement of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), declared its allegiance to Usama bin Laden (search) on Sunday, saying it had agreed with Al Qaeda 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."

The statement, whose authenticity could not be independently confirmed, said the two had been in communication eight months ago and "viewpoints were exchanged" before the dialogue was interrupted.

"God soon blessed us with a resumption in communication, and the dignified brothers in Al Qaeda (search) 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 Qaeda leadership has long been the subject of considerable speculation. Although many experts believe al-Zarqawi had longtime ties to Al Qaeda, 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.......

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 Qaeda'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 Qaeda 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."

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