In the recording posted on a website that has previously carried the group's statements, a voice believed to be the al-Qaeda leader's says the cartoons were part of a "crusade" in which the Roman Catholic pope, Benedict XVI, was involved.

 

He said Europe was intentionally targeting Muslim women and children at the behest of their "unjust ally who is close to departing the White House".

 

"The response will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God," he goes on to say without specifying what action will be taken.

 

The message also coincided with the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

 

The five minute recording which featured English subtitles could not be independently verified but it bore the logo of al-Qaeda's media wing al-Sahab.

 

The White House said on Thursday that US intelligence agents are confident that the voice is genuinely that of the al Qaeda leader.

 

Adam Raisman, a senior analyst at the SITE Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors websites used by al-Qaeda and other groups, said "the tape doesn't give any specific evidence that would allow us to determine when it was recorded".

 

Cartoons reprinted

 

The cartoons were first published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 but a furore erupted only after other papers reprinted them in 2006.

 

At least 50 people were killed in the protests against the publication of the cartoons, which some Muslims say are an affront to Islam.

 

In the past month, thousands of Muslims in Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have protested against Danish newspapers reprinting the cartoons.

 

Sudan also barred Danes from the country and declared a national boycott of Danish products.

 

Newspapers which have reprinted the cartoons argue they are defending the right to media freedom.

 

Saudi king criticised

 

The Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader also attacked the country's King Abdullah, whom he described as the "crownless king in Riyadh".

 

He said Abdullah could have ended the entire dispute over the cartoons if he had wanted to because of his influence with European governments.

 

Bin Laden, who hails from a powerful Saudi family, was stripped of his citizenship in 1994 after criticising Riyadh for allowing US troops on its soil.

 

Wednesday's message is believed to be bin Laden's first for 2008 and follows up an hour-long, audio missive from December 27 in which he warned Iraq's Sunni Arabs against fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and vowed new attacks on Israel.

 

In November, he urged European countries to end military participation with US forces in the Afghan conflict.

 

Bin laden, blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on US cities, issued a number of messages late last year after a hiatus of well over a year raised speculation that he might be dead or incapacitated.

 

He is believed to be hiding in remote areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.