Osama Bin Laden's chief deputy in an audiotape Tuesday accused Shiite Iran of trying to discredit the Sunni al-Qaeda terror network by spreading the conspiracy theory that Israel was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
The comments reflected the increasing criticism by al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri against Iran, which al-Zawahri has accused in recent messages of seeking to extend its power in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and through its Hizbullah allies in Lebanon.
Al-Zawahri spoke in a two-hour audiotape posted on an Islamic militant Web site, in which he replied to hundreds of questions submitted on the Internet by al-Qaeda sympathizers. One of the questioners asked about the theory that has circulated in the Middle East and elsewhere that Israel was behind the 2001 suicide airplane hijacking against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Al-Zawahri accused Hizbullah's Al-Manar television of starting the rumor. ''The purpose of this lie is clear - (to suggest) that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it,'' he said.
''Iran's aim here is also clear - to cover up its involvement with America in invading the homes of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq,'' he added. Iran cooperated with the United States in the 2001 US assault on Afghanistan that toppled al-Qaeda's allies, the Taliban.
Al-Qaeda has previously claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, but al-Zawahri's accusations of Iran in his answer underlined his increasing denunciations of Iran, which he did not often mention in past messages until recent months. The anti-Iranian rhetoric could reflect an attempt to exploit majority Sunnis' fears of Shiite Iran's influence in the region and depict al-Qaeda as the main force opposing it.
Answering questions about Iraq in Tuesday's tape, al-Zawahri said the Iraqi insurgent umbrella group led by al-Qaeda, called the Islamic State of Iraq, is ''the primary force opposing the Crusaders (the United States) and challenging Iranian ambitions'' in Iraq.
As he often does in his messages, al-Zawahri denounced the ''Crusader invasion'' of Iraq, referring to the Americans, but in Tuesday's tape he paired it with a mention of ''Iranian complicity'' or ''Iranian agents.''
The authenticity of the audio could not be independently confirmed. But the voice sounded like past audiotapes from the terror leader, and the posting where it was found bore the logo of Al-Sahab, al-Qaeda's official media arm. It was the second of two messages answering questions to al-Zawahri that were posted to Islamic militant Web sites earlier this year.
In the latest tape, al-Zawahri was also asked if the terror group still had plans to attack Western countries that participated in the US-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent war. ''My answer is: Yes! We think that any country joined aggression on Muslims must be deterred,'' he replied.
In response to a question signed by the Japanese news agency Kyodo asking if Japan remains a target because it once had troops in Iraq, al-Zawahri said ''Japan provided help under the banner of the crusader coalition ... therefore it participated in the Crusader campaign against the lands of Islam.''
''Our Islamic faith urged us to resist the injustice and aggression even if they were the most powerful on earth. Should Japan take a lesson from this?'' he said. Japan deployed non-combat troops to southern Iraq in 2003 to carry out reconstruction work. It withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2006 and now conducts airlifts to help supply US-led forces in that country.
Al-Zawahri spoke on a wide range of issues, even global warming - which he said reflected ''how criminal, brutal and greedy the Western Crusader world is, with America at the top.''
He predicted that global warming would ''would make the world more sympathetic to and understanding of the Muslims' jihad (holy war) against the aggressor America.''
Asked if there are any women in al-Qaeda, the terror leader answered simply: ''No.'' In a follow-up answer, he said: ''there are no women in al-Qaeda jihadi group, but the women of the mujahedeen are playing a heroic role in taking care of their houses and sons.''
In several parts of Tuesday's audio message, Al-Zawahri claimed that Taliban took over 95 percent of Afghanistan and is sweeping Pakistan as well.
''Residents of the provinces and various regions welcome the Taliban and urge them to come to purify their regions of corruption; this is the secret of Taliban quick deployment and gripping control of 95 percent of Afghanistan,'' he said.
''The Crusaders and their agents in Pakistan and Afghanistan are starting to fall,'' al-Zawahri said.
In another answer Tuesday, al-Zawahri said it was against Islamic religious law for any Muslim to live permanently in a Western country because in doing so they would ''have permanent stay there under the laws of the infidels.''
Al-Qaeda's media arm, Al-Sahab, announced in December that al-Zawahri would take questions from the public posted on Islamic militant Web sites and would respond ''as soon as possible.'' Queries were submitted on the main Islamist Web site until the cutoff date of Jan. 16.