DUBAI (Reuters) – An Iraq-based group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda group in a move it said aimed to increase the “ire of infidels and the fear of the enemies of Islam”.
Washington has long accused Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad Group of links to al Qaeda. But a statement posted on the Internet on Sunday was the group’s first public admission of ties to the network behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“With the advent of the month of Ramadan and the need for Muslims to unify ranks in the face of the enemy… We announce that the Tawhid and Jihad Group, its prince and soldiers, have pledged allegiance to the sheikh of the mujahideen (holy fighters) Osama bin Laden,” said the statement dated Sunday.
“Sheikh Abu Musab was in contact with the brothers in al Qaeda for eight months, exchanging points of view, then contact was interrupted only to be restored again and the brothers in al Qaeda understood Tawhid and Jihad Group’s strategy in (Iraq),” said the statement, which was posted on several websites often used by militants.
It was not possible to verify its authenticity.
With a $25 million price on his head, the elusive Zarqawi is Washington’s main enemy at large in Iraq and is blamed for some of the worst violence against the U.S.-backed interim Iraqi administration.
Zarqawi’s group has claimed a series of killings, hostage beheadings and suicide bombings in Iraq.
Some Islamists said that the pledge of allegiance was aimed at attracting more fighters to Tawhid and Jihad under the banner of al Qaeda to expand the group’s “holy war” in Iraq.
London-based Islamist activist Yasser al-Serri, whose own Web site monitors other Islamic sites, said he believed the statement was authentic and was aimed at unifying ranks among anti-U.S. militants.
“It is aimed at boosting morale and recruiting more people by saying that Tawhid and Jihad have become the soldiers of bin Laden in Iraq,” he told Reuters. “It also aims to belie U.S. claims that Zarqawi was an al Qaeda member by saying he only just joined the network.”
Before last year’s invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush’s administration had portrayed the Jordanian-born Zarqawi as al Qaeda’s link to Baghdad.
Zarqawi, a man with a string of aliases, spent years in the lawless wastes of western Pakistan and Afghanistan. Before the U.S.-led war on Iraq, he was linked to Ansar al-Islam, a militant group operating in Kurdish-held northern Iraq.