CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Osama bin Laden will address the fight by Islamic militants in Somalia and Iraq in an upcoming Internet message, a Web site said Friday, just hours after the al-Qaida leader released a rare statement that praised the slain Iraq insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In the audiotape earlier Friday, bin Laden’s voice sounded tired and, once again, he conspicuously avoided showing his face in the Web message.

The 19-minute tape was the latest in a string of messages from the al-Qaida leader this year that have been strong on propaganda, but have said little about how the terror network will continue its “jihad” against the United States – raising questions about bin Laden’s level of control.

The pace of messages, however, has increased dramatically this year – with four audiotapes from bin Laden and seven audios and videos by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Hours after Friday’s message appeared, an advertisement on the same Islamic Web site said bin Laden would issue another tape directed to “the Islamic nation in general and the mujahedeen in Iraq and Somalia in particular.” A similar announcement proceeded bin Laden’s message Friday by about 24 hours.

The advertisement banner was signed by As-Sahab, the production branch that releases al-Qaida videos, and had an old picture of bin Laden. The teaser was first reported by the SITE Institute and the IntelCenter, two U.S.-based independent groups that provide counter-terrorism information to the U.S. government and media. The IntelCenter said the promised message was expected within 36 hours.

Bin Laden has not appeared in a video since October 2004 and did not issue any messages in 2005. This year, he has made four audiotapes, part of a stepped-up media campaign by him and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who has appeared in several videos.

Terror experts said bin Laden’s reluctance to show his face probably does not indicate he is in poor health and instead is likely a security measure, to prevent hints of his location from slipping out.

Bruce Hoffman, a RAND counterterrorism expert based in Washington, said it may also be that bin Laden is trying to increase the drama of an eventual appearance.

“You do videotape when there’s something important,” Hoffman said.”When bin Laden appears it’s something very special. He’s as shrewd a showman as they come, and his sense of choreography is very high.”

So far, the opportunity hasn’t presented itself, a sign the al-Qaida leader – believed to be in hiding in the Afghan-Pakistan border region – is seeking for now just to show he survives and remains in control.

“What do you have to brag or crow about if you’re sitting in a cave trying to avoid capture,” Hoffman said. “So he’s trying to leverage off of events to show his presence.”

Al-Qaida advertised Friday’s message prominently on Islamic Web forums more than 24 hours before it was posted – suggesting the importance of paying tribute to al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who often appeared more of a rival than a follower.

The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a June 7 airstrike by U.S. warplanes, became a hero among extremists by positioning himself as al-Qaida’s fighter on the ground, battling the Americans on the hottest front of jihad, Iraq.

In the audiotape, bin Laden poured praise on al-Zarqawi in rhymed couplets traditional to Islamic poetry, calling him a “lion of Islam” who was “not just an honor to his tribe, his country and his Islamic nation, but to all mankind.”

The audiotape narration was part of a 19-minute video showing old footage of al-Zarqawi, in a split screen with an old photo of bin Laden. U.S. intelligence officials believe it is bin Laden’s voice, said a counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said: “It’s another bin Laden audio tape. It is what it is.”

The voice resembled bin Laden’s from previous messages known to be from him, though the authenticity of Friday’s tape was not immediately confirmed.

Bin Laden’s voice – always quiet in his messages – sounded fatigued in the audio. He demanded U.S. President George W. Bush release al-Zarqawi’s body to his family and that Jordan allow him to be buried in his homeland, something Amman has said will never happen.

Al-Qaida’s central leadership is believed to have differed with al-Zarqawi, criticizing his strategy of targeting Shiite civilians with brutal suicide bombings in an attempt to spark a civil war in Iraq.

Bin Laden defended al-Zarqawi, saying he had “clear instructions” to focus on U.S.-led forces in Iraq but also “for those who … stood to fight on the side of the crusaders against the Muslims, then he should kill them whoever they are, regardless of their sect or tribe.”

But bin Laden did not mention Shiites in particular, underlining the divisions with al-Zarqawi, who frequently railed against Shiite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere.

The al-Qaida leader – perhaps inadvertently – also showed his distance and lack of a direct hand in the fight in Iraq, said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups.

In particular, bin Laden made no mention of al-Zarqawi’s successor, or even mention the name of al-Zarqawi’s organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, Rashwan noted.

Instead, bin Laden said, “The banner has not fallen, it has only been passed from one lion to another.”

“He doesn’t appear to even know al-Zarqawi’s succcessor,” Rashwan said. Al-Qaida in Iraq has named a little known militant as its new leader, with the pseudonym of Abu Hamza al-Muhajer.

Bin Laden also addressed Bush, saying, “We will continue to fight you and your allies everywhere, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan to run down your resources and kill your men until you return defeated to your nation.”

But like other tapes this year, there was little sign of the direction of bin Laden’s fight.

He issued a message in January warning that his followers were planning a new attack in the United States. But his other three since then have been more focused on commenting on current events, including U.N. plans for a peacekeeping force in Sudan. He issued a message saying Zacarias Moussawi, just convicted in the United States, had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings.

The focus has been on showing that even in hiding – with few major al-Qaida attacks outside of Iraq – he is in control.

“I think he’s conscious that while he’s been doing all the talking, al-Zarqawi has been doing all the fighting,” Hoffman said.


AP-ES-06-30-06 1910EDT

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