Osama bin Laden: Is it him? Almost certainly.

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The Independent Online

So why only on audio? Why no video tape? Is he sick? Yes, say the usual American "intelligence sources". It's the same old story: Osama bin Laden talks to us from the mouth of a cave, from within a cave, from a basement perhaps, from a tape almost certainly recorded down a telephone line from far away. Yesterday's message, broadcast as ever by al-Jazeera television, was a reminder that security - not sickness - decides his method of communication.

We invaded Afghanistan to find Bin Laden and we fight and die in Iraq to kill his supporters - yet still he eludes us, still he threatens us, still he taunts us.

How much longer can this nonsense go on? President Jacques Chirac warns that France - of all countries - might use nuclear weapons, if attacked. On whom, I wonder? America blows Pakistani children to pieces and claims it has killed five wanted men, including a bomb-maker. But there's absolutely no evidence. Bin Laden says that America will be attacked again unless it accepts a truce in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weren't we supposed to be winning the "war on terror"? Oh no, the "experts" tell us, Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida are losing, that's why they want a truce. Some hope.

It's a game. Bin Laden has no intention of calling an end to his own war and nor has George Bush and nor has Tony Blair. The Bin Laden offer, almost certainly, is intended to be rejected. He wants Bush and Blair to refuse it. Then, after the next attack, will come the next audio tape. See what happens when you reject our ceasefire? We warned you. And we'll ask: is it him? So why no video tape? Never before in history have so many wanted men sent pictures and messages and video tapes out of the dark.

The irony, of course, is that Bin Laden is now partly irrelevant. He has created al-Qa'ida. His achievement - that word should be seen in context - is complete. Why bother hunting for him now? It's a bit like arresting the world's nuclear scientists after the invention of the atom bomb. The monster has been born. It's al-Qa'ida we have to deal with.

So we are told that America's security hasn't prevented an attack, that "operations" take time to prepare. "It is better not to fight the Muslims on their land," Bin Laden says. "We'd not mind offering you a truce that is fair in the long term ... so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan," he says. Forget for a moment the deep cynicism behind this message - deconstructing the Shia of Iraq seems to be one of the Iraqi insurgents' aims - it also reveals one of Bin Laden's old themes: the idea that these wars will bankrupt the United States.

"There is no shame in this solution because it prevents the wasting of billions of dollars ... to the merchants of war." These are almost the same words Bin Laden used to me when we last met. "The Americans will be bankrupted," he said, not realising that war primes the pumps of a superpower economy.

It is as if both "sides" in this conflict live on illusions. Mssrs Bush and Blair keep telling us things in Iraq are getting better, when we all know that they are getting worse. Anarchy has seized that entire country. American bodies coming home to the United States? Just don't let the press take photographs of the coffins. Bombs in London? Nothing to do with Iraq, Blair haplessly told us last July.

Now there's a website in Spanish about Iraq on the White House screens. Why? Because the Spaniards are interested in the war their army has left? Or because so many of the American soldiers dying in Iraq are Hispanics? And now we have Paul Bremer, America's equally hapless former pro-consul in Baghdad, telling us that those same Spanish troops contributed to the uprising in Najaf because they weren't performing their tasks in Iraq. More nonsense. What started the uprising was Bremer's own anger at an attack on him in a tiny Shia Muslim newspaper which he ordered to be closed (in an announcement of execrable Arabic). It was this which prompted Muqtada al-Sadr to fight the Americans.

And so we go on. Blame foreign fighters - even if 158,000 of them in Iraq happen to be wearing American uniforms - blame Syria, blame Iran. And blame Spain of course. Blame anyone who is not "with us".

In truth, it will need Iran and Syria to help get the US and Britain out of this shameful adventure. Yet what do we do? Raise the stakes on Iran by claiming that it intends to make nuclear weapons. And why Iran? Why not that infinitely more unstable Islamic state called Pakistan whichhas nuclear weapons? Because its dictator, President General Musharraf is on "our side". Why not attack North Korea, whose leader is more unstable than any Iranian cleric? Because he also has nuclear weapons.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban are slowly returning. Outside Kabul every woman wears a burqa. Weren't they supposed to have taken them off? Weren't women now "free" in Afghanistan? US troops are being killed at an increasing rate there. Weren't they supposed to have won? Now Canada has split its troops and sent a battalion to Kandahar to fight the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. What are the Canadians now doing in combat operations? What risks does this now pose for the Canadian nation which kept out of Iraq?

It was only a few months ago that Bin Laden was bombarding us with explanations for his movement's attacks. Why did no one ask, he said, why Sweden was not assaulted? And so, I suppose, we can indeed fear more attacks on the United States, more bombing raids, further chapters in the "war on terror".

And all the time we in the West fail to look for a way to end this "war". How about some justice in the Middle East? How about lifting the blanket of injustice that has lain across the region for so many decades? Muslims there will probably like some of the democracy we say we're trying to export to them. They would also like human rights off our Western supermarket shelves.

But they would also like another kind of freedom - freedom from us. And this, it seems, we are not going to give them. So the war goes on. Stand by for more audio tapes, and more threats, and more death.

The text of Osama bin Laden's message

The text of excerpts from the Bin Laden tape

My message to you is about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to end them... Our situation, thank God, is only getting better and better, while your situation is the opposite.

But I plan to speak about the repeated errors your President Bush has committed in comments on the results of your polls that show that an overwhelming majority of you want the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. But he [Bush] has opposed this wish and said that withdrawing troops sends the wrong message to opponents, that it is better to fight them [Bin Laden's followers] on their land than them fighting us [Americans] on our land. I can reply to these errors by saying that war in Iraq is raging with no let-up, and operations in Afghanistan are escalating in our favour, thank God, and Pentagon figures show the number of your dead and wounded is increasing not to mention the massive material losses...

The reality shows that war against America and its allies has not been limited to Iraq as he [Bush] claims ... The proof of that is the explosions you have seen in the capitals of the European nations who are in this aggressive coalition. The delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. The operations are under preparation and you will see them in your homes the minute they are through [with preparations]...

We don't mind offering you a long-term truce on fair conditions that we adhere to. We are a nation that God has forbidden to lie and cheat. So both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war. There is no shame in this solution, which prevents the wasting of billions of dollars that have gone to those with influence and merchants of war in America who have supported Bush's election campaign with billions of dollars.

SEE, HEAR AND QUESTION ROBERT FISK

The Independent's celebrated Middle East Correspondent talks about his life in the war zone on 23 January, from 6.30 to 8pm at Manchester Town Hall, Albert Square, Manchester.

A limited number of tickets are still available. If you would like tickets, please e-mail debate@independent.co.uk with your full name, address, daytime telephone number and number of tickets required. Ticket-only event. Subject to availability.

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