The 33-minute audiotape appeared Tuesday on a Web site known for distributing militant Islamic messages. The speaker introduced himself as al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed to be running a terrorist network that stretches from Europe to Central Asia.
Also known as Ahmed al-Khalayleh, al-Zarqawi is also thought to be a close associate of Osama bin Laden and has ties to terrorist groups ranging from Ansar al Islam in Iraq to Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He's believed to be behind many attacks in Iraq, including at least a dozen high-profile operations.
"The CIA's assessment is that it is probably authentic," said an agency official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Al-Zarqawi's whereabouts are unknown, but the Web site on which the tape appeared had a transcript heading that said al-Zarqawi was in Iraq. Breaking with his pattern of not claiming credit for attacks and not making taped public pronouncements, he took responsibility in the message for the attacks on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the Jabal Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad and an Italian police station in Nasiriyah, among others.
The message reiterated themes from a letter U.S. authorities released in which al-Zarqawi purportedly wrote to other al Qaeda leaders that the best way to undermine U.S. policy in Iraq was to turn the country's religious communities against each other. The letter was found on an al Qaeda figure captured in northern Iraq in January.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it isn't clear why al-Zarqawi released the tape, though he may have wanted to more fully explain his strategy.
The official said he also makes reference to history, quoting scholars, suggesting he is trying to appeal to a broader Sunni Muslim audience.
On the tape, al-Zarqawi said Shiite Iraqis were not true Muslims and were "the ears and the eyes of the Americans" in Iraq. He called upon Sunni Muslims in Iraq to "burn the earth under the occupiers' feet."
Iraq's Shiite majority was suppressed under toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who favored his own Sunni community. Saddam loyalists in heavily Sunni parts of the country and foreign fighters have been blamed for the bulk of attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi also threatened to kill Gen. John Abizaid, head of the Central Command; L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq; and "their generals, soldiers and associates."
The tape appeared hours before a Jordanian court convicted al-Zarqawi in absentia and sentenced him to death for the 2002 killing of a U.S. aid official in a terror conspiracy linked to al Qaeda. U.S. officials have offered a $10 million reward for his capture, saying he is trying to build an network of foreign militants in Iraq.