In a rare video posted Tuesday on the Internet, al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden and said any government formed in Iraq would be merely a “stooge.”
He also mocked the U.S. military in Iraq for what he called suicides, drug-taking and mutinies, and he warned that “worse” attacks were to come.
The video, released just days after Iraq named a new prime minister and a high-profile audiotape from bin Laden appeared on Arab TV, seemed a deliberate attempt by al-Zarqawi to claim the spotlight again following months of taking a lower profile.
It also came just one day after a triple bombing at a resort in Egypt that killed at least 24 people, including 21 Egyptians and three foreigners.
The video was believed the first to show al-Zarqawi’s face. The bearded, black-clothed terrorist leader, thought to be about 40, was in a flat desert landscape, dotted with scrub brush as if after a spring rain, that looked startlingly like Iraq’s western Anbar province.
The footage showed him and about two dozen insurgents, masked and dressed in black uniforms, undergoing combat training.
In another scene, al-Zarqawi was filmed inside, sitting with his lieutenants and Anbar’s insurgent commander, according to a caption in the video. The men, sitting on traditional Arab cushions and mats, could be seen discussing strategy over a large map spread on the ground.
“Any government which is formed in Iraq now — whether by Shiites or Zionist Kurds, or those who are dubbed Sunnis — would only be a stooge,” al-Zarqawi said in the video. “They are a poisoned dagger in the heart of the Muslim nation.”
Effort to portray unity, official tells NBC
The video appeared to be “an effort to display unity among the jihadis in Iraq,” particularly in light of recent comments by others in the movement that he had been “sidelined,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told NBC News.
Besides Zarqawi’s message in the video, the background in several scenes may have been intended to send a message, the official said.
In one part of the video, al-Zarqawi sat dressed in black and with a black skullcap on his head, with an ammunition vest hung from his neck and an automatic rifle propped against the wall to his right.
In one scene, Zarqawi appears in front of the Mujahedin Shura Council logo. “They want to portray unity,” the official said. “That logo was part of the effort.”
The official also noted that Zarqawi appeared in the field, apparently planning operations and demonstrating his prowess with weapons. The scene may have been intended to show Zarqawi’s command role, the official said.
Iraq makes progress
It has been just days since Iraq named a new prime minister and made progress toward forming a new government. In that sense, the video could be an attempt by the terrorist leader to raise his visibility at a time when U.S. officials are hailing the Iraqi political process as a setback to the insurgents.
Al-Zarqawi also claimed the U.S. military was overwhelmed in Iraq.
“Why don’t you tell people that your soldiers are committing suicide, taking drugs and hallucination pills to make them sleep?” he asked, directing his words to President Bush.
“By God, your dreams will be defeated by our blood and by our bodies. What is coming is even worse,” he said.
The U.S. military in Iraq said it would have no immediate comment. In Washington, intelligence analysts were examining the video and two U.S. officials declined to comment immediately.
Web site used in the past
It was not possible to confirm its authenticity, but it was posted on a Web site that al-Zarqawi’s group and others have used to post Internet messages.
Al-Zarqawi previously has made statements only through audiotapes posted on the Web, although photos of him obtained by the U.S. government have been widely circulated.
In the video, al-Zarqawi also accused the West and the United States of waging a “crusader” war against Islam but said Muslim holy warriors were standing firm.
“When the enemy entered into Iraq, their aim was to control the area and support the Zionist state,” al-Zarqawi said. “But here we have been fighting them for the last three years.”
He also mentioned Jerusalem, saying that while fighters are in Iraq, “our eyes are on Jerusalem, which cannot be regained without a guiding Quran and a triumphant sword.”
Allegiance to bin Laden
And he repeated his allegiance to bin Laden, calling him his emir or prince.
“Our emir, sheik Osama bin Laden, has offered you a truce, which was good for you if you had accepted. But you turned it down, because of your arrogance,” al-Zarqawi said, referring to an offer al-Qaida’s chief made two years ago to cease attacks on Europe if the U.S. would withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bin Laden tape that was played on Arab television Sunday encouraged Muslims to support his group in its war with the West.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, has claimed responsibility for some of the most high-profile suicide bombings in Iraq, and also for a score of other attacks including hotel bombings in November in Jordan.
Among other attacks he has been blamed for, U.S. officials believe al-Zarqawi personally beheaded American businessman Nicholas Berg, whose savage killing was shown on a videotape distributed by al-Qaida in Iraq in May 2004.
It was the first of a series of videotaped decapitations of Westerners in Iraq, which ended after widespread complaints from Muslims who were sympathetic to the insurgency but objected to the video beheadings.
Some experts have long cautioned, however, that al-Zarqawi’s role may have been exaggerated and that some of the attacks claimed by his group — or that U.S. and Iraqi officials blamed on him — may have been carried out by others.
Iraq’s insurgency has always been made up of several disparate groups, and some of them, including Ansar al-Sunnah Army and the Islamic Army of Iraq, have been nearly as violent as al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi has seized most of the attention because of his relentless Internet propaganda efforts, the brutality of his attacks — including the hostage beheading videos — and a series of suicide car bombings that targeted mostly Shiites.