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Qaeda tapes show Zarqawi rise, bin Laden decline

Written by: Staff

BERLIN, Apr 26 (Reuters) Messages from two al Qaeda leaders within three days highlight the increasingly symbolic role of Osama bin Laden and the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the dominant operational figure.

Bin Laden rehashed some familiar themes in a tape released on Sunday, accusing the West of waging a ''crusade'' against Muslim countries and urging militants to open a new front for holy war in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

Zarqawi, al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, warned Sunni militants against abandoning the insurgency and promised further attacks as Prime Minister-designate Jawad al-Maliki sets out to form a government of national unity.

The striking difference was one of presentation.

Bin Laden issued his message in the form of an audiotape and has not now been seen on any new video since October 2004, fuelling speculation he is either sick or is hiding at a remote location with limited access to technology.

Zarqawi, for the first time, issued a lengthy on-camera statement in which the bearded Jordanian appeared without a mask or disguise -- a bold move for a man with a 25 million dollars reward on his head who narrowly escaped capture by U.S. forces in Iraq in February 2005.

''It signifies that he's in a very good position from a security and tactical point of view,'' said Mohamed al-Sayed Said, deputy director of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

''He's not someone who is trembling or fearful. He feels victorious to the point of arrogance, he's talking as if he had already won victory.'' Zarqawi was shown speaking with an assault rifle alongside him, and later firing long bursts from an automatic weapon -- apparently deliberate echoes of earlier bin Laden videos.

More Reuters SHB DB2225

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