The head of Syria's jihadist Al-Nusra Front on Wednesday pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message, but distanced his group from claims it had merged with Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"The sons of Al-Nusra Front pledge allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri," Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani said in the recording.
But, he added, "we were not consulted" on an announcement by Al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Tuesday of a merger with Al-Nusra Front.
"We inform you that neither the Al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement. It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted," Jawlani said.
He added that the group would not be changing its flag or its "behaviour."
"Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag, though we will continue to be proud of the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, of those who carry it and those who sacrifice themselves and shed their blood for it," said Jawlani, acknowledging he had fought in Iraq alongside the ISI, Al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch.
"We reassure our brothers in Syria that Al-Nusra Front's behaviour will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance (to Al-Qaeda) will not affect our politics in any way," he added.
Jawlani's comments came a day after the ISI made a surprise announcement that Al-Nusra was part of its network, confirming long-held suspicions that had led the United States to put the Syrian jihadist group on its terror blacklist.
"It is time to declare to the Levant and to the world that the Al-Nusra Front is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq," ISI's chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in an audio message.
The groups would be combined and called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Baghdadi said, describing Jawlani as "one of our soldiers".
"We chose al-Jawlani... as well as other fighters to go from Iraq to Syria... We prepared plans and work policies. We gave them money and personnel support," Baghdadi said.
The announcement followed a message from Zawahiri, urging rebels to fight to establish an Islamic state in Syria, and was received with caution by the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army.
"We don't support the ideology of Al-Nusra," FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad told AFP, stessing: "There has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate with Al-Nusra.
"Al-Nusra exists, it is financed and it is armed. That's why certain brigades of the FSA cooperate with them on certain operations on the ground," he added, warning that "no one has the right to impose on Syria what shape their state will take.
"Syrians will go to the polls to choose their leaders," Meqdad said. "Our goal is clear -- to bring down the regime and establish a democratic state."