By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, showed his face in a video for the first time yesterday, accusing President Bush of lying to Americans about U.S. military victories in Iraq and vowing to destroy efforts to form a new government there.
Zarqawi predicted that "America will go out of Iraq, humiliated, defeated," in the 34-minute video, which showed him posing in the desert, firing an automatic rifle and consulting with other men whose faces were hidden.
In the three years since the beginning of the Iraq war, Zarqawi has issued numerous audiotapes, and occasional videos with his face concealed -- including during his beheading of U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg in May 2004 -- in which intelligence officials confirmed his identity through voice analysis. In the video posted yesterday on a radical Islamic Web site and dated April 21, only Zarqawi, bearded and wearing a black sweater and skullcap, was identifiable.
U.S. intelligence officials who evaluated the video, the bulk of which was devoted to his delivery of a lengthy speech in which he claimed that mujaheddin forces now had "the upper hand on the battlefield," said it was genuine.
Two days ago, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released an audiotape urging followers to prepare for a drawn-out conflict with the West. Bin Laden appeared briefly as a static image in the Zarqawi videotape with a voice-over calling on Islamic youth to fight "crusaders and Jews" wherever they are, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, according to a translation provided by the Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors terrorist Internet sites.
"All the good results are coming toward us, so my nation, do not give up. Don't be lazy," Zarqawi said in the video, titled "A Message to the People." During a discourse lasting approximately 20 minutes and simultaneously filmed by two cameras -- one placed in front of him and one slightly to the side, he was seated before a blank wall with a rifle beside him. Wearing an ammunition vest, he rarely looked directly into the camera and his downcast eyes seemed to be reading from a text held in front of him.
Zarqawi's face remained expressionless, but his voice was strong and he repeatedly raised his hand for emphasis. There was no indication where the tape was made, although he said that he was "not far away" from the Abu Ghraib prison, on the western edge of Baghdad.
Accusing Bush of "arrogance" in refusing to respond to bin Laden's recent offer of "a long-term truce," Zarqawi said the president had "become a liar to your own people . . . you claim that everything is under control . . . and it appears afterward that you are lying."
Bush, he said, was concealing from Americans that U.S. troops had "failed to fight," had committed suicide and took drugs that "make them like animals."
The United States had brought "rotten democracy" to Iraq and thought that a multiparty government would "get you out of the ditch you are in." As far as the mujaheddin were concerned, Zarqawi said, "any government in Iraq, whatever it is, will be like a dagger in the heart of the Muslim nation." Referring to Sunni political parties that last weekend agreed to participate in a Shiite-majority government, he said they had "put a rope around the necks of the Sunnis" and warned that the insurgents would target any who participated in the Iraqi military and police.
In Iraq, an aide to transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari attributed Zarqawi's unprecedented appearance to unease over the long-delayed agreement reached last weekend to form a multi-party government. "Now they have seen that the government has broken the deadlock," Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi said in a telephone interview in Baghdad. "They are feeling this might be the last chance they have to survive. They [the insurgents] are fighting everyone in Iraq. Every Iraqi. I think that shows how weak they are."
But a U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said it was equally likely that Zarqawi's message was designed to reassert his preeminence among Iraq's dozen or more recognized Sunni insurgent groups and "to give the impression of unity."
Over the past several months, reports of dissension and realignment within the insurgency have swirled through the Arab press and jihadi online forums. Zarqawi's name, and that of his group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, have largely disappeared from the Web sites where he long claimed credit for attacks on U.S. forces and propounded extremist doctrine.
His lowered profile began with the Jan. 15 announcement that al-Qaeda in Iraq and five other Sunni insurgent groups had formed a coalition called the Mujaheddin Shura Council (the Arabic word shura connotes consultation among decision makers). Since then, all attack claims by the groups have been issued by the coalition's "military wing."
The council adopted a new insignia, an image of hands reaching up to jointly clasp the staff of a waving green flag with Arabic script reading: "There is no God but God. Mohammed is the Prophet of God." The insignia was superimposed in the corner of yesterday's video, and Zarqawi himself made reference to the coalition, describing it "like an umbrella of all the mujaheddin in Iraq. They all stretch their hands and stand on the same line."
Although the coalition publicly invited all insurgent groups to join, several prominent groups -- including Ansar al-Sunnah, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Army in Iraq, were noticeably absent from its ranks. One statement circulated on the Internet, allegedly signed by these groups and others, claimed they had formed their own coalition to strengthen their position in Iraq's western Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold, and were ending their cooperation with al-Qaeda.
The import of Zarqawi's lowered profile, the formation of the council and the refusal of prominent members of the insurgency to join it have been the subject of much debate among counterterrorist analysts within the Bush administration, the U.S. military and private organizations that monitor his pronouncements.
Some have seen it as evidence that Zarqawi and al-Qaeda are retreating in the face of their failure to stop the democratic progress in Iraq or alternatively that Zarqawi -- who has been criticized in the past by al-Qaeda for brutal tactics that alienate the Muslim population -- had been demoted as the head of his own organization.
Commentary on al-Arabiya television and newspapers including the pan-Arab al-Hayat and the Palestinian al-Watan Voice have cited sources confirming Zarqawi's diminished role. The son of Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden's onetime mentor, emerged early this month to declare that Zarqawi had been stripped of his political role and relegated to military operations by the "high command" of the Iraqi resistance.
Al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based Arab nationalist daily, reported that Jordan-based Hudayf Azzam had been "commissioned" by the resistance to convey a new image and "to show that the resistance controls al-Zarqawi and his group, and not the other way around."
U.S. counterterrorism analysts, however, have dismissed such conclusions as wishful and dangerous thinking. They have warned the changes could portend an operational division of insurgent groups in Iraq, with Zarqawi and those most closely allied with al-Qaeda shifting their focus to neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, while the rest continue to wage war against the United States and the new Iraqi government. Still others have ruefully acknowledged that three years into the Iraq war, little is known for certain about the internal workings of the insurgency.
Penetrating its shadowy organization has long been among the most vexing problems for U.S. intelligence and military forces in Iraq. How it is defined has significant political implications in this country. The Bush administration's efforts to tie the Iraq conflict to the larger war against global terrorism have long emphasized a leading role for Zarqawi, al-Qaeda and the "foreign fighters" it says slip over the border from Syria.
"We're still looking at this intensely to see how it shakes out," a senior administration official said of the reports from Iraq before the emergence of yesterday's video. "It's an important development and one we need to look at. But at the end of the day Zarqawi is still going to be a major player."
Correspondents Craig Whitlock in Berlin and Nelson Hernandez in Baghdad and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.