Terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi revealed his face for the first time Tuesday in a dramatic video in which he dismissed Iraq's new government as an American "stooge" and called it a "poisoned dagger" in the heart of the Muslim world.
The video, in which he also warned of more attacks to come, was posted on the Internet only days after a breakthrough in Iraq's political process allowing its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to start assembling a government.
It also followed a high-profile audiotape from Usama bin Laden and seemed a deliberate attempt by al-Zarqawi to reclaim the spotlight following months of taking a lower profile amid criticism of bombings against civilians. It was his first message since January.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity in compliance with office policy, said analysts believe al-Zarqawi is showing his face to demonstrate that he is still engaged as a leader of jihad, or holy war.
The message also appeared to be an attempt by the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq to rally Iraqis and foreign fighters to his side at a time when U.S. and Iraqi officials are touting political progress as a setback to insurgents.
Al-Zarqawi appeared in the 30-minute video, which he said was made Friday, dressed head-to-toe in black with a black scarf around his head and a beard and mustache.
He seemed healthy, shown in one scene standing and firing a heavy machine gun in a flat desert landscape that resembled the vast empty stretches of western Iraq, where he is believed to be hiding.
He delivered his statement, sitting inside with an ammunition vest hung from his neck and an automatic rifle propped nearby.
Al-Zarqawi addressed Sunni Arabs in Iraq and across the Arab world, warning that their community was in danger of being caught between "the Crusaders and the evil Rejectionists," the terms used by radical Sunnis for the Americans and the Shiites.
"God almighty has chosen you (Sunnis) to conduct holy war in your lands and has opened the doors of paradise to you ... So mujahedeen, don't dare close those doors," he said. "They are slaughtering your children and shaming your women."
Any new government — "whether made up of the hated Shiites or the secular Zionist Kurds or the collaborators imposed on the Sunnis — will be stooges of the Crusaders and will be a poisoned dagger in the heart of the Islamic nation," he said.
He trumpeted the success of the insurgency, saying "when the enemy entered into Iraq, their aim was to control Iraq and the area. But here we have been fighting them for the last three years."
He addressed President Bush, telling him, "By God, you will have no peace in the land of Islam."
"Your dreams will be defeated by our blood and by our bodies. What is coming is even worse," he said.
A U.S. intelligence official, who also declined to be identified in compliance with office policy, said a technical analysis had determined that the voice on the tape was al-Zarqawi's.
Al-Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest suicide bombings in Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein and for the beheadings and killings of at least 10 foreign hostages, including three Americans and a Briton. The U.S military has put a $25 million bounty on his head.
He has made several audiotapes with similar messages, but the last time video in which al-Zarqawi was believed to have appeared was one released on May 11, 2004, in which U.S. intelligence says he is a masked figure shown beheading American Nicholas Berg with a knife. His face is not visible.
Arab television network aired portions of the tape at the same time that Iraq's government-owned TV broadcast an interview with the Prime Minister-designate Jawad al-Maliki, who called for Iraq's sharply divided Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to unite in a front against terrorism.
"If we can reach unity between all the components of the people, the canals of terrorism will dry up," al-Maliki said.
If made on Friday, the tape came three days before a triple bombing at a resort in Egypt that killed at least 24 people, including 21 Egyptians and three foreigners.
It was believed to be the first time al-Zarqawi's group has released a video showing his face, said Ben Venzke, head of IntelCenter, an Alexandria, Va.-based firm that provides counterterrorism intelligence services to the U.S. government.
The counterterrorism official said U.S. intelligence still believes that al-Zarqawi is in Iraq and there was no evidence the video was linked to either the Egypt bombings or the bin Laden video.
A video, rather than an audio, is thought to increase the risk to the speaker, he said.
One or two pictures of al-Zarqawi's face have circulated on Islamic militant Web sites before, and he appeared in a video of his sister's wedding in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
U.S. and Iraqi troops hunting al-Zarqawi also have several old photos of him at their checkpoints — some showing him bearded, others showing a younger, softer face. Wanted posters offering a $25 million reward are kept at checkpoints across Iraq — with several photos showing al-Zarqawi at different stages of his life.
Iraqi security forces detained al-Zarqawi in Fallujah in 2004 but released him after a few hours because they didn't realize who he was, deputy interior minister Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal said last year.
The footage showed al-Zarqawi and about two dozen insurgents undergoing combat training together.
In another scene, he sat indoors with masked lieutenants and a man identified in a caption as the insurgent commander for Iraq's western province of Anbar. The men, sitting on traditional Arab cushions and mats, were discussing strategy over a large map spread on the ground. Only his face was shown.
Al-Zarqawi had taken a low profile in recent months after Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for a Nov. 9 triple bombing in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people, most Sunni Arabs.
That attack raised a backlash against the militant leader. His tribe in Jordan renounced him, and even some extremist leaders criticized the shedding of civilian blood.
In January, al-Zarqawi's group said in a Web statement that it had joined five other Iraqi insurgent groups to form the Mujahedeen Shura Council, or Consultative Council of Holy Warriors. Since then, al-Zarqawi's group stopped issuing its own statements.
Tuesday's video was issued under the aegis of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, whose logo appeared on the screen, along with the black flag logo of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
London-based security consultant Charles Shoebridge also said the video could be an attempt by al-Zarqawi to shore up his standing among insurgents.
"He appeared to have a sense of mystique by never showing his face ... (The video) could well be motivated by the perceived weakening of his position within the insurgency," Shoebridge, a former counterterrorism officer with London's Metropolitan police and an ex-British Army intelligence officer, told The Associated Press.
It also may seek to undermine Sunni Arabs participating in the government, "which he would see as a great threat to the future of the insurgency and as further marginalizing both him and Al Qaeda sections of the insurgency," he said.