In an audiotape broadcast Monday by al-Jazeera satellite television, a man purported to be Osama bin Laden endorsed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq and called for a boycott of next month's elections there.
The voice on the tape described al-Zarqawi as the "emir" of al-Qaeda in Iraq and called upon Muslims there "to listen to him."
The speaker condemned Jan. 30 elections to elect an Iraqi National Assembly that will then draft a new constitution.
"In the balance of Islam, this constitution is infidel and therefore everyone who participates in this election will be considered infidels," he said. "Beware of henchmen who speak in the name of Islamic parties and groups who urge people to participate in this blatant apostasy."
He was apparently referring to Shiite clerics, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who have issued edicts deeming participating in the election a "religious duty."
An al-Jazeera announcer said the speaker on the tape also called for attacking pipelines, planting mines and killing people who work for the occupation forces and indirectly called for financing al-Qaeda's operations in Iraq, which he said cost about US$270,000 a week.
The voice sounded like that that of bin Laden and the statement and language used appeared to conform with previous announcements by the Saudi-born terrorist. It was not immediately possible, however, to verify the voice's authenticity.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said it hadn't been determined whether the speaker was bin Laden but "it is a message from terrorists and an attempt by murderers to perpetuate their evil trade."
Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout refused to say how or when the station received the audiotape.
The speaker on the tape praised an October statement in which al-Zarqawi declared allegiance to bin Laden and changed his group's name to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The purported bin Laden called the move "a great step on the path of unifying all the mujahedeen in establishing the state of righteousness and ending the state of injustice."
The speaker said al-Zarqawi and those with him are fighting "for God's sake."
"We have been pleased that they responded to God's and his prophet's order for unity, and we in al-Qaeda welcome their unity with us," he said.
Al-Jazeera broadcast excerpts of the tape while showing a still photo of the bearded bin Laden, wearing a white robe and head covering.
The speaker on the tape said he has been "pleased" with al-Zarqawi's "gallant operations" against the Americans and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's "apostate government."
Al-Zarqawi's terror group, previously known as Tawhid and Jihad, is believed to be leading a brutal campaign of hostage-takings, beheadings and bombings.
The US has placed a US$25 million bounty on both bin Laden and al-Zarqawi.
Al-Zarqawi is believed to have escaped from his headquarters in the insurgent-held stronghold of Fallujah during the massive US-led assault last month.
Monday's was the second tape allegedly by bin Laden to surface this month. An audiotape posted on an Islamic Web site Dec. 16 had a man identified as bin Laden praising militants who attacked a US consulate in Saudi Arabia earlier this month and calling on militants to stop the flow of oil to the West.
Bin Laden, believed hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, before that reached out to his followers in October, with a videotape aired on al-Jazeera just before the US presidential elections.