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Bin Laden is back, now as defender of Iraq

After a year of silence, Al Qaeda leader warns of more attacks against the West.

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The world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, has proved he is still alive with his taped message broadcast Tuesday. He has also stood himself foursquare beside Iraq, amid mounting US preparations for an assault on Baghdad.

Threatening more violence against America and its allies, Mr. bin Laden justified recent attacks on Western targets and cast himself - once again - as a defender of the Iraqi people.

"At this pivotal point in history, as the US prepares to go to war against Iraq, he almost had to speak out ... to maintain credibility among his followers," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at the RAND Corp.

By doing so, bin Laden also appears to be presaging a new wave of terrorist attacks if there's a war with Iraq. "A commonality of interest," between Washington's two top enemies "could become a marriage of convenience," warns Magnus Ranstorp, who studies terrorism at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "War could push the connection, and Iraqi intelligence could certainly facilitate terror attacks."

The US and its allies are taking the bin Laden tape seriously.

Intelligence officials, who have not been sure whether bin Laden survived the intense military bombing of his Afghan mountain stronghold of Tora Bora last December, worked through the night to authenticate the tape. With near-certain verification that the voice is bin Laden's, it proves he has not only evaded an intense year-long dragnet, but also that the top leadership of his group is intact and still capable of wreaking more havoc.

"I don't think we have ever had an enemy more willing for us to know what he was doing," says a senior intelligence official. "Osama bin Laden is not going to engage in tit for tat discussions. When he has something to say, he will say it."

These intelligence officials and experts put credence in what bin Laden says because of the previous messages he and other members of his leadership have released, going back to 1996.

In early October, for example, Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released an audiotape that preceded the terror attacks against the US Marines in Kuwait, the French tanker in Yemen, and the bomb blast in Bali. Many experts say that tape was meant to telegraph that Al Qaeda was still in business. It was also a likely signal to its followers to pick up the intensity of strikes.

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