ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – The purported pledge by terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to unite with Osama bin Laden’s group raises the horrifying specter of two of the world’s most dangerous terrorists working together, though it may be a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Al-Zarqawi’s group, which has claimed responsibility for beheading foreigners in Iraq and car bombings, could be trying to shore up its support in the radical Islamic community as it faces relentless U.S. bombings in Iraq targeting the organization’s leadership.

Linking up with bin Laden would also give al-Zarqawi’s group better access to funding and potential recruits through the al-Qaida network, analysts and officials said.

“They’re circling the wagons,” said Matt Levitt, director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

As the United States continues “to crack down on their capabilities they’re going to reach out to others to fill into their gaps,” he said.

In recent weeks, U.S. airstrikes have targeted safe houses used by the al-Zarqawi network in Fallujah, a mostly Sunni city in central Iraq that is believed to serve as their base. Key leaders of the group have been killed, U.S. officials have said.

In the past year, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi has become the most feared militant leader in Iraq, where a complex insurgency rages, led by various factions – Sunnis, Shiites, Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters like al-Zarqawi.

Al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group has posted videos on the Internet showing a hooded militant – in many cases believed to be al-Zarqawi himself – cutting off the heads of foreign hostages with a knife and displaying them. The group also is suspected of being behind last year’s car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq, which killed 22 people.

By so brazenly challenging the United States, al-Zarqawi has made himself a hero to many Islamic militants.

“Politically he is riding high, although his organization may be getting pounded,” said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.

The pledge of support for bin Laden “enables him to tap into resources that were previously not available,” Byman added. “It could be that he is strong enough politically but on a day to day basis he may need more money and people.”

Al-Zarqawi trained in Afghanistan and has long had ties with bin Laden’s al-Qaida, although how close the two are has long been a source of speculation.

Inside the U.S. government, there’s been a debate about al-Zarqawi’s relationship to bin Laden. At various times and by various authorities, he was considered to be an independent operative, an ally of bin Laden or a true al-Qaida deputy.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said the al-Zarqawi statement confirms the view that he had links to al-Qaida, and appears aimed at elevating him in the eyes of his jihadist followers. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the statement is viewed as credible.

“What this gets him is the promise of more popular support and that makes him a more formidable enemy,” said Steven Simon, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. think tank.

In the declaration that appeared on an Islamic Web site this weekend, al-Zarqawi said he regarded bin Laden as “the best leader for Islam’s armies against all infidels and apostates.”

It also affirmed the “allegiance of Tawhid and Jihad’s leadership and soldiers to the chief of all fighters, Osama bin Laden.”

In Baghdad, an official with the Iraqi interim government dismissed the statement, saying it would have little impact on fighting.

“Criminals of the world unite,” said Mashal Sarraf, a senior adviser to Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan. “It doesn’t make any difference. It’s two criminals getting together.”

The statement wouldn’t be the first time al-Zarqawi reached out to bin Laden. U.S. officials said they intercepted a letter in January from al-Zarqawi to the al-Qaida leadership in which he complained his fighters were under pressure from U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.

Yet his relationship with al-Qaida and bin Laden also includes a history of rivalry.

When al-Zarqawi’s operatives in Germany told him in 2001 – before the Sept. 11 al-Qaida attacks on the United States – that they were also raising money for bin Laden’s organization, he became angry, according to Arabic-language wiretaps played last month at the German trial of four men suspectd of plotting to attack Jewish and other targets in Germany. The plot was foiled in April 2002 when police arrested five followers of al-Zarqawi’s group.

“If something should come from their side, simply do not accept it. Just forget it!” said al-Zarqawi. His voice was identified in court by a fifth jailed follower, Shadi Abdallah, although the authenticity has been questioned.

Al-Zarqawi gave instructions to carry out terror attacks on Jewish or Israeli institutions in Germany during a September 2001 meeting in Iran with Mohamed Abu Dhess, who led the German-based cell, German prosecutors have said.

If al-Zarqawi is now seeking a true alliance with bin Laden, formally linking the two terror networks could boost the standing of al-Zarqawi in the Islamic world by showing him to be part of a global network, and not just a local terror leader, analysts say.

“Now he can answer any criticism of his methods and his goals by saying that … he is not a personal adventurer but it is part of the general struggle of Islam against the infidels and the apostates,” said Michael Radu, a terrorism analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Some experts remain skeptical, however, and said the statement might not be authentic, though it was posted on a Web site that’s known to be a clearing house for statements from militant groups and officials in Washington said it appeared to be credible.

The skeptics say the statement links two of Washington’s most implacable enemies and was released weeks before a tight U.S. presidential election.

“If al-Zarqawi were the manager of the Bush campaign, this would be the right statement at the right time,” said Diaa Rashwan, a terrorism analyst at Cairo’s al-Ahram Center. “It’s timing … only serves the interests of the Bush election campaign.”

Associated Press writer Katherine Pfleger Shrader contributed to this report from Washington.

AP-ES-10-19-04 1532EDT

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