Osama bin Laden, the leader-in-hiding of Al Qaeda, announced today that his organization was shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“Iraq is not the central front in the War of Terror,” he said. “It is a distraction. By sending so many troops into Iraq, we’ve stretched our forces thin. As a result, I am shifting at least two brigades from Mosul and Diyala province to southern and eastern Afghanistan.”

Analysts said that bin Laden is responding to critics within Al Qaeda who warned, in 2002, that entering Iraq would be a disaster for the terrorist group. “Bin Laden believed, wrongly, that Iraqis would welcome Al Qaeda with open arms,” said Phineas McGill, a Brookings Institution terrorism specialist. “He was half right. Iraqi Sunnis welcomed him with arms.” McGill said that a rebel faction in Al Qaeda accused bin Laden of saying that Iraq “would be a cakewalk.”

According to MEMRI, a pro-Israeli terrorism watchdog group, bin Laden apparently believed, wrongly too, that he could get his hands on Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. A captured Al Qaeda document, translated by MEMRI, quotes bin Laden saying: “Our people told me that Iraq had lots of WMDs that would be useful in our jihad, but they were wrong.” Al Qaeda militants, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, are reportedly blaming bin Laden for being so gullible. When Al Qaeda weapons specialists got to Iraq in 2003, after the U.S. invasion removed Saddam Hussein’s government, they expected to seize control of vast stores of sarin gas, anthrax, and perhaps half a dozen nuclear bombs. According to MEMRI, an Al Qaeda internal document provided to bin Laden in 2002 called the existence of Saddam’s WMD stockpiles “a slam dunk.” Bin Laden, however, may not have been influenced by that conclusion, because, although he is an avid soccer fan, he knows nothing about basketball.

Since 2003, Al Qaeda in Iraq has faced two increasingly strong sets of enemies. On one hand, a mostly Sunni Iraqi resistance movement has systematically fought Al Qaeda north and west of Baghdad. On the other hand, Iraqi Shiites — many allied to Iran, Al Qaeda’s deadliest foe in the region — have brutally suppressed bin Laden’s organization in Iraq.

“I’m proposing to withdraw one to two brigades of our brothers from Iraq each month,” bin Laden concluded. “Within sixteen months, all of our combat forces should be gone from Iraq.”

But, analysts said, Afghanistan is unlikely to be more hospitable to Al Qaeda. A new Afghan government, supported by Iran, India, Russia and their Northern Alliance allies, is strongly opposed to Al Qaeda’s version of Islamic fundamentalism. And in neighboring Pakistan, where Al Qaeda has scattered into lawless redoubts, a new government in Karachi may be able to shut down the secret Al Qaeda support network within Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI, and dry up support for Al Qaeda there, too. “Our only hope,” said an Al Qaeda spokesman, “is that the United States intervenes in Afghanistan even more clumsily. Unless America bombs a few more wedding parties, we’re going to find it very hard to recruit there.”

The Al Qaeda spokesman added, “We never could have gotten any traction at all in Iraq if it hadn’t been for the American invasion in 2003. We were so happy then. So we have to cross our fingers and hope that the United States steps up its meddling in Afghanistan, too.”

Rather wistfully, he said: “Of course, what we’re really hoping is that the United States will bomb Pakistan, too. We’re crossing our fingers.”