Al—Qaeda’s No. 2 has slammed France’s push to ban the Islamic full—face veil and urged Muslim women to be “holy warriors” in the defence of their headdress against the “secular Western crusade” in a new audio message released Wednesday on militant websites.

In the 47—minute recording, Ayman al—Zawahri said the drive by France and other European nations to ban the veil amounted to discrimination against Muslim women.

“Every single woman who defends her veil is a holy warrior ... in the face of the secular Western crusade,” he said.

“France, with all its power and clout, can’t touch the head—cover of a nun, but it can assault any face—veiled woman.”

Al—Zawahri also urged Muslims in Europe to support their women in resisting the Western ban on the veil.

“We must call upon our girls, our sisters and our mothers to put on the veil. We must support them and defend them.”

France, Belgium and Spain are debating legislation that would ban the veil. Other nations in Europe too have struggled to balance national identities with growing Muslim populations with cultural practices that clash with their own.

Al—Qaeda’s deputy leader also eulogized the network’s No. 3 official, Mustafa al—Yazid, who was killed along with his family in a U.S. strike in Pakistan in May.

Al—Yazid’s killing was among the hardest blows to al—Qaeda since the U.S. campaign against the terror network began.

He was the group’s prime conduit to Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the day—to—day running of the organization, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning, as U.S. officials said after his death.

Al—Zawahri praised what he called al—Yazid’s achievements in Afghanistan and claimed that although killed al—Qaeda militants in Iraq outnumber U.S. soldiers 100—to—1, it is the U.S. that is withdrawing its troops from Iraq.

“The Americans are leaving and the Mujahedden ... are the ones staying,” he said.

U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of next month, and the rest by the end of 2011.

He said the latest terror attacks against the United States, including a May 1 attempted car bombing in New York city’s busy Times Square, were in response to the presence of foreign troops in Muslim nations like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Leave our land and enjoy security in your countries,” al—Zawahri said.

In his audiotape, al—Zawahri also talked about a wide range of topics in the Middle East such as democratic reforms in his native Egypt. He said that holy war was the only way to achieve reforms, not peaceful calls for reforms or elections.

“Change is not coming with ElBaradei ... or yelling in demonstrations,” he said, alluding to former U.N. nuclear chief and Egyptian diplomat Mohammed ElBaradei who returned to Egypt this year after decades abroad, declaring that he would seek change in his native country.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in Egypt later this year and presidential elections in 2011. President Hosni Mubarak, in office since 1981, has not yet said whether he will run for a sixth, six—year term.

Al—Zawahri also addressed Yemenis, urging them to wage attacks against U.S. targets and the Yemeni government.

Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, he said, was “ready to do anything to appease America.”

“Are you waiting for American soldiers to tour the streets of San’a in their tanks before you wage holy war against them?” He asked.

U.S officials worry that militants of an al—Qaeda offshoot have found refuge in Yemen’s remote, lawless areas and could be plotting attacks against American and other Western targets from there.

More In: International | News