BAGHDAD, Iraq — The most feared militant group in Iraq, the movement of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared its allegiance to Osama bin Laden on Sunday, saying it had agreed with al-Qaida over strategy and the need for unity against "the enemies of Islam."
The declaration, which appeared on a Web site often used as a clearinghouse for statements by militant groups, began with a Quranic verse encouraging Muslim unity and said al-Zarqawi considered bin Laden "the best leader for Islam's armies against all infidels and apostates."
The statement, whose authenticity could not be independently confirmed, said the two had been in communication eight months ago and "viewpoints were exchanged" before the dialogue was interrupted.
"God soon blessed us with a resumption in communication, and the dignified brothers in al-Qaida understood the strategy of Tawhid and Jihad," the statement said.
U.S. troops pounded Fallujah with airstrikes and tank fire Sunday, and the Iraqi government appealed to residents to expel "foreign terrorists" to prevent an all-out attack. A suicide driver in Baghdad exploded a car near a police patrol, killing at least seven people and wounding 20.
A mortar shell also exploded at a Baghdad sports stadium minutes before interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi arrived to inspect a cash-for-weapons program for Shiite fighters. Insurgents, meanwhile, ambushed and killed nine Iraqi policemen as they were returning home from a training course in Jordan.
The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi is suspected of about a dozen high-profile attacks in Iraq, including last year's bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, and the beheading of numerous foreign hostages.
His relationship to bin Laden and the al-Qaida leadership has long been the subject of considerable speculation. Although many experts believe al-Zarqawi had longtime ties to al-Qaida, others suspected that al-Zarqawi considered himself a rival to bin Laden for the mantle of chief defender of the Muslim faith.
The Bush administration said it was still trying to confirm the report.
"But we've always said there were ties between Zarqawi and al-Qaida, which underscores once again why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said in Washington. "It's also proof positive of why the president's firm resolve to fight terrorists overseas so we don't face them in America's neighborhoods is the only clear way to prevail."
The statement affirmed the "allegiance of Tawhid and Jihad's leadership and soldiers to the chief of all fighters, Osama bin Laden." It said the announcement had been timed for the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when "Muslims need more than ever to stick together in the face of the religion's enemies."
"It's good tidings for our nation . . . to spite the infidels and frighten the enemies of Islam."
The statement also endorsed bin Laden's goal to "expel the infidels from the Arabian peninsula" — a reference to American influence in the al-Qaida leader's native Saudi Arabia, birthplace of the Islamic faith.
Al-Zarqawi's declaration appeared two days after the U.S. government formally declared Tawhid and Jihad a terrorist organization. The listing imposes several restrictions on the group, including a ban on travel to the United States and a freeze on the group's assets in U.S. banks.
The United States, Britain and Iraq are asking the U.N. Sanctions Committee to list the al-Zarqawi group as well, which would impose identical sanctions worldwide.
Al-Zarqawi also was indicted Sunday in his native Jordan along with 12 other alleged Muslim militants on charges of plotting a chemical attack that could have killed thousands of people.
Al-Zarqawi and three of the others will be tried in absentia on charges including conspiring to commit terrorism, possessing and manufacturing explosives and affiliation with a banned group, according to the 24-page indictment made available Sunday to The Associated Press.
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe al-Zarqawi's movement is centered in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, where U.S. troops clashed Sunday with militants. However, Tawhid and Jihad banners have been seen recently in Samarra, Ramadi and even on the streets of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
In Cairo, Mohammed Salah, an expert on Islamic militancy, said the claim that bin Laden and al-Zarqawi were in regular contact was "more or less a media stunt to frustrate" their common opponent, the United States.
It appeared the announcement also was aimed at enabling al-Zarqawi, who has a background as a common criminal, to profit from bin Laden's stature among radical Muslims.
Bin Laden, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan or in the border areas of Pakistan, has faded somewhat from public view and recent declarations by al-Qaida's leadership have been made by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
On the other hand, al-Zarqawi's group has become highly visible, posting videos on the Web showing the beheading of foreign hostages and bloody attacks against American troops in Iraq.
"By virtue of his location, al-Zarqawi has more access to the Americans, which will make it easier for al-Qaida to carry out operations without logistical complications or time delays," Salah said. "Bin Laden is on the run and hiding. He's become a symbol, as opposed to al-Zarqawi's actual presence on the ground that has made him a definite planner and executor."
The indictment in Jordan alleged that al-Zarqawi sent more than $118,000 to buy two vehicles that would be driven into Jordan's General Intelligence Department by suicide bombers armed with explosives and chemicals.
The indictment said the defendants had collected geographical data indicating thousands of people would be killed in the chemical blast.
Nine other men who are in custody in Jordan face the same charges, while a 13th suspect faces lesser charges of helping two of the fugitives. If convicted in the military court, 12 of the men face the death penalty.
U.S. officials said they intercepted a letter in January from al-Zarqawi to the al-Qaida leadership in which the Jordanian terrorist complained that his fighters were under strong pressure from U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi claimed in the letter, which was released by the Americans, that he was responsible for about 25 attacks in Iraq. Since then the number of attacks claimed by or attributed to al-Zarqawi has risen sharply.
Throughout the day, the crackle of automatic weapons fire and the thud of artillery echoed across Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, as fighting between American troops and insurgents raged on the eastern and southern edges of the city, witnesses said.
Clashes blocked the main road leading to Baghdad, and plumes of smoke rose above the flat-roofed houses in the city's Askari and Shuhada neighborhoods in eastern and southern Fallujah.
Witnesses said a Humvee was seen burning in the eastern edge of the city, and hospital officials reported three civilians were killed. The U.S. military reported no casualties.
U.S. Marines said Sunday that they used small arms, tanks, artillery, mortars and seven precision airstrikes against Fallujah insurgents. The Marines said that insurgents were seen taking refuge in a mosque but that troops did not fire on them.
American forces have stepped up attacks around Fallujah since peace talks between the Iraqi government and Fallujah clerics broke down last Thursday after city leaders rejected Allawi's demand to hand over "foreign terrorists," including the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi.
Fallujah clerics insist al-Zarqawi, whose Tawhid and Jihad movement has claimed responsibility for multiple suicide car-bombings and hostage beheadings, is not in the city. Fallujah fell under the control of hard-line Islamic clerics and their armed followers after U.S. Marines lifted a three-week siege in late April.
Despite the claim that al-Zarqawi is not in the city, a statement posted on an Islamic militant Web site on Sunday made a rare announcement that a member of Tawhid and Jihad identified as Sheik Abu Hafs al-Libi was killed fighting the Americans in Fallujah. The claim's authenticity could not be confirmed.
The earlier Internet statement from al-Zarqawi's group, which also could not be verified, affirmed the "allegiance of Tawhid and Jihad's leadership and soldiers to the chief of all fighters, Osama bin Laden." It said the announcement was timed for the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when "Muslims need more than ever to stick together in the face of the religion's enemies."
The car bombing occurred late Sunday in Baghdad's fashionable Jadiriyah district, home to the Australian and other embassies. The dead included four policemen and the suicide driver, according to the interior ministry.
As the Iraqis try to reach a peaceful end to the Fallujah standoff, the U.S. military is believed to be drafting plans for an all-out assault on the city if negotiations fail.
In London, the British Defense Ministry said the United States has asked Britain to redeploy hundreds of troops from southern Iraq amid reports the soldiers will back up the Americans in the event of a major attack on Fallujah.
British media reports say the United States wants British soldiers to replace units of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines in Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Defense Minister Geoff Hoon will confirm the American request Monday before the House of Commons and say Britain has not made a decision, a ministry spokesman said.
Allawi's interim government renewed its call for Fallujah to surrender al-Zarqawi and others, saying their presence in "some areas and cities" is "something the government cannot accept or tolerate."
"We call upon the sons and tribes of Fallujah to immediately expel foreign terrorists and evacuate all the city's neighborhoods from these murderers and their criminal supporters who want to hamper plans of reconstructing Iraq," National Security Adviser Qassem Dawoud said in a statement.
Dawoud said "the door is still open before any initiative or effort to avoid having to use the military option."
Elsewhere, police said nine Iraqi policemen returning from training in Jordan were ambushed and killed Saturday in Latifiyah, an insurgent stronghold 25 miles south of Baghdad. The attackers escaped. Latifiyah is part of a belt of towns just south of the capital where kidnappings and ambushes have been common.
Along the Syrian border, overnight clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents left four people dead and 13 others wounded, Dr. Wael al-Duleimi said Sunday from the border town of Qaim. The city is a hotbed of insurgent activity and is believed to be a major route for smuggling weapons and fighters into Iraq.
In hopes of sparing Fallujah further violence, the city's clerics have offered to resume peace talks if the Americans stop their attacks. But the talks have deadlocked over the alleged presence of al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters.
"We are still ready to go back to the talks and open new channels of dialogue," said negotiator Abdul Hamid Jadou. But he said Allawi is "responsible for each drop of blood being spilled in Fallujah. This government sided with the Americans in bombing the innocent people who are fasting in Ramadan."
The government had no comment. However, Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said Fallujah's chief negotiator, Sheik Khaled al-Jumeili, would be released shortly. The cleric was arrested Friday near Fallujah after talks with the government broke down.
Iraqi officials hope that Fallujah leaders can be persuaded to negotiate a deal similar to one struck with Shiite radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to end clashes in the Sadr City district of Baghdad. Under the deal, al-Sadr's fighters have been turning in weapons for cash.
On Sunday, a mortar shell exploded at a sports stadium about 15 minutes before Allawi was to arrive to inspect the guns-for-cash program. The itinerary was quickly changed and Allawi visited several other sites before arriving at the stadium.
Allawi called on Iraqis throughout the country to surrender their weapons and to respect the rule of law and to be part of the political process.
More than 200 detainees were released Sunday from Abu Ghraib prison after a security review deemed them no longer a threat, the U.S. military said. It was the fifth round of releases since a review board began work in August following a torture scandal at the detention facility.
Also Sunday, the 1st Cavalry Division said it could be days before an investigation determines what caused two Army OH-58 helicopters to crash Saturday night in southern Baghdad, killing two soldiers and injuring two others.