Washington, Feb. 12: President George W. Bush has not mentioned Osama bin Laden for several months and pointedly excluded his name from his State of the Union address last month. But the world’s most wanted man has returned to America’s centre stage, spreading alarm across the country when the FBI has already raised the level of terror alert.
Osama’s sudden elevation to the heart of the Iraq crisis was bizarre and added to jitters here after the authorities advised Americans to keep tape and plastic sheeting ready so they can seal off a “safe room” against radiation, deadly germs or chemical gas.
Word of the tape, in which Osama urged Muslims to “fight the allies of the devil” and in the same breath denounced Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein as an infidel, first came from US secretary of state Colin Powell in his testimony before the Senate Budget Committee.
Television networks raced to contact al Jazeera, the Arabic TV channel, which, Powell said, had the tape. But the channel denied any knowledge of the tape.
It appears a transcript of Osama’s message had been sent to Powell even before al Jazeera had made up its mind on whether to air it. Almost half a day after Powell pre-empted the TV channel, it finally put out the 16-minute message in Arabic.
If Powell believed that exposing the Osama tape calling for solidarity with the Iraqis during a US attack would convince the world about ties between al Qaida and the regime in Baghdad, he did not succeed in this effort.
“From what is known so far, we do not think we can conclude that there is evidence of an axis or close link between the regime in Baghdad and al Qaida,” a German government spokesman said after Berlin analysed the tape and concluded that it was, indeed, Osama’s voice in the message.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation remained deadlocked on aiding Turkey to defend itself against any fallout of a possible war and France circulated its proposals to avoid a conflict by tripling the number of UN inspectors in Iraq and taking other measures.
The trans-Atlantic war of words could reach a crescendo on Friday when UN chief inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed el Baradei report to the Security Council.
Heightening public fears here about an impending terrorist attack, American media reported today that US intelligence analysts had intercepted several conversations which mentioned a “package”. In the past, al Qaida used the term as code for bomb material, these reports said.
In the tape, Osama — though expressing contempt for Saddam — said the interests of Muslims coincided with those of Iraq’s secular “socialist” government in “the war against the crusaders”.