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Al-Qaida No. 2: U.S. near defeat

| Friday, Sept. 10, 2004

CAIRO, Egypt -- Osama bin Laden's chief deputy claimed the United States was on the brink of defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan in a videotape broadcast Thursday that appeared to be a rallying call for al-Qaida ahead of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The defeat of America in Iraq and Afghanistan has become a matter of time, with God's help," Ayman al-Zawahri said on the tape, which was broadcast by the pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera. "The Americans in both countries are between two fires -- if they continue they bleed to death and if they withdraw they lose everything."

A bearded Al-Zawahri, wearing eyeglasses, a white turban and a black vest over a white shirt, spoke looking into the camera. An assault weapon was leaning on the wall behind him.

U.S. forces face fierce resistance in parts of Afghanistan and across Iraq, but military commanders insist they maintain the upper hand against insurgents in both countries.

Al-Qaida has issued a bin Laden audiotape in the two previous years on Sept. 10, so yesterday's video fits a pattern leading up to the attack anniversary, a U.S. intelligence official said. Intelligence officials were working to confirm the speaker was al-Zawahri.

If it was al-Zawahri, it would be the first time since December 2001 that bin Laden's No. 2 has appeared in a video in which he is speaking and delivering a message, the official said, although he was purported to have made a statement in an audiotape on June 11. Al-Zawahri also was shown speaking on a videotape on April 15, 2002, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the time that the material appeared to be outdated.

Experts were investigating what message the video released yesterday might be seeking to convey and whether the videotape is actually an older audiotape, now joined with its images.

U.S. officials have noted that some tape releases have preceded terrorist attacks. In April 2003, a taped voice thought to be bin Laden's exhorted Muslims to rise up against Saudi Arabia and called for suicide attacks against U.S. and British interests. Suicide bombers struck Western housing compounds in the Saudi capital May 12, killing 26 people.

Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout said his station received the al-Zawahri tape exclusively on yesterday, but he refused to say how it was obtained. The station will broadcast less than two minutes of a 12-minute recording, "taking out of it what we deemed newsworthy," Ballout told The Associated Press. Ballout refused to comment on the contents of the unaired portions of the tape, including whether or not they contained any threats.

Pakistani army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan, whose forces staged an offensive against al-Qaida and Taliban remnants in the border region with Afghanistan this week, said the tape was likely aimed at "boosting the morale of the terrorists who have suffered heavy casualties."

Pakistani warplanes pummeled a suspected al-Qaida training facility near the border with Afghanistan yesterday, flattening a vast mud-brick compound and killing at least 50 fighters, the military said, in one of the fiercest assaults in months of fighting in the area.

Bin Laden and al-Zawahri are believed hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

In a videotape released on Sept. 10, 2003, Bin Laden and al-Zawahri were shown walking through rocky terrain. Two audiotaped messages accompanied that video, including one in which bin Laden praised the "great damage to the enemy" done on 9/11.

In this year's anniversary tape, al-Zawahri makes a rare appearance without bin Laden, proclaiming that the era of security for Americans is over and they will never enjoy it again unless their government stops what he described as crimes against Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

He also warned of plans to tear apart the Arab and Islamic worlds, saying that includes the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and Sudan, particularly the troubled Darfur region where conflict has raged for 19 months.

Al-Jazeera's presenter said the reference to Darfur, which has drawn recent international attention with criticism of the Sudanese government's handling of the crisis, indicates the tape is new.

Al-Qaida carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, prompting Washington to move against Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which had sheltered bin Laden. The Taliban were driven from power in late 2001 by a U.S.-led military campaign.

"Southern and eastern Afghanistan have completely become an open field for the mujahedeen," or holy fighters, al-Zawahri said in excerpts of the tape aired by the Qatar-based station.

"The Americans are huddled in their trenches, refusing to come out to confront the holy warriors despite the holy warriors provoking them by shelling, shooting and cutting the routes around them and their defense concentrates on strikes from the air which wastes America's money in kicking up dust," he added.

In recent months, southern and eastern Afghanistan have been racked by violence against U.S. military forces and Afghan election workers preparing for an Oct. 9 presidential vote.

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan couldn't be reached for comment, but U.S. commanders and their Pakistani allies have said they have Taliban remnants and al-Qaida on the defensive.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai also said recently that he considers infighting among pro-government warlords a larger threat to his nation's stability than that posed by the remnants of the Taliban regime.

Still, U.S. and Afghan officials are on edge after a Kabul car bombing two weeks ago killed about 10 people, including three Americans, and concede that militant attacks could increase in the run-up to next month's elections.

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