Prague, 10 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are confirming that they intercepted a letter last month from a foreign-led Islamic extremist group in Iraq that asks Al-Qaeda for help in driving U.S. forces out of the country.
A top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General Mark Kimmitt, said yesterday that the letter -- first reported by the U.S. daily "The New York Times" earlier this week -- was written by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant leader operating in Iraq. "We are persuaded that Zarqawi was the author of this letter. It is our understanding that this letter was being taken by a courier outside this country [Iraq] for delivery abroad, and it is our intent and, certainly, our hope that, in the near future, that this letter can be declassified," Kimmit said.
"The interesting thing is that he is an extreme Sunni following the Salafist, Wahabi school, and this would be the natural course for them to try and target religious symbols in order to complicate the transition to democracy."
The attribution of the letter to al-Zarqawi focuses renewed attention on a mysterious figure who has long been identified by the United States as being an "associate" of Al-Qaeda. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell cited al-Zarqawi's presence in the country as evidence of a possible link between Saddam Hussein's regime and international terrorist groups.
Powell said yesterday that the letter supports Washington's argument that al-Zarqawi was in Iraq prior to the toppling of Hussein in April. "It certainly lends, I think, some credence to what we said at the UN last year, that he was active in Iraq and doing things that should have been known to the Iraqis, and we are still looking for those connections and to prove those connections," Powell said.
Analysts say the letter underlines the fact that some foreign-led Sunni extremist groups in Iraq share common ideological values with Al-Qaeda and that these may provide a good foundation for operational ties. The extent to which militant Islamists might have afforded a connection in the past between Hussein's regime and Al-Qaeda is hotly debated by proponents and critics of the U.S. administration's argument for invading Iraq.
Magnus Ranstorp is an expert on terrorist groups at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He says that al-Zarqawi himself is not considered a member of Al-Qaeda. But as a member of a Jordanian group opposed to that country's Western-leaning monarchy, he has long been involved in struggles against the U.S. presence throughout the region.
Ranstorp says al-Zarqawi "straddles multiple camps" in the militant Muslim world, many of which could be considered to be under the general umbrella of Al-Qaeda's ideology, even though they are separate from the group itself. "I think [al-Zarqawi] straddles multiple camps," he said. "The important thing is he has been in many different stations and that enables him to have this loose control or guiding force in terms of operations."
Al-Zarqawi is suspected of orchestrating the murder of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian court last year for plotting attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets.
In Iraq, al-Zarqawi is suspected of being behind several major incidents, including the deadly bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, an attack on a shrine in the holy Shi'a city of Al-Najaf, and an attack outside the main gate of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad. Washington offered a $5 million reward in October for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
The letter attributed to al-Zarqawi specifically appeals for help from Al-Qaeda leaders to help spark a sectarian war between Iraqi Shi'a and Sunni Muslims that might cause the United States to withdraw from the country. CPA spokesman Dan Senor said yesterday that "the document...talks about a strategy of provoking violence targeted at the Shi'a, the Shi'a leaders, in hope that it would provoke reprisals [by the Shi'a] against other ethnic groups in the country."
Ranstorp says an appeal for help in attacks targeting Shi'a would be in keeping with the common values of al-Zarqawi and of Al-Qaeda. Those values are rooted in the extremist Salafi movement within Sunni Islam. The movement considers Shi'ism to be outside the pale of Islam and a threat to the religion's Sunni mainstream.
"The interesting thing is that he is an extreme Sunni following the Salafist, Wahabi school, and this would be the natural course for them to try and target religious symbols in order to complicate the transition to democracy. [That is] in essence trying to bring into fruition -- through various simple acts of violence that may have a cascading effect through the different communities -- turbulence that would make it a lot easier for them to get an advantage in operations against the West and against the United States, in particular," Ranstorp said.
But even as the letter calls for help in provoking communal violence, the document also acknowledges that foreign-led militant Sunni groups so far have had limited success in rallying Iraqis under their banner.
The intercepted letter speaks of the difficulties foreign-led Islamic insurgent groups have had in persuading Iraqi families to let them use their homes as operational bases. "The New York Times" quotes the author of the letter as saying: "Many Iraqis would honor [militants] as a guest and give you refuge, for you are a Muslim brother. However, they will not allow you to make their home a base for operations or a safe house."
The letter also says that any new initiatives to provoke sectarian strife must be launched before the United States hands over political authority to a sovereign Iraqi government at the end of June. "The New York Times" quotes the letter as saying that after that date, "the Americans will continue to control from their bases, but the sons of this land [Iraqis] will be the authority," making it more difficult to woo Iraqis to the insurgents' cause.
In describing the letter yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Powell called it "very revealing" of the problems Islamic insurgents face in Iraq, even as it shows they remain determined to fight U.S. forces. "With respect to the letter itself, it is very revealing. They describe the weaknesses that they have in their efforts to undercut the coalition's efforts but, at the same time, it shows they haven't given up," he said. "They are trying to get more terrorists into Iraq, and they are trying to create more terrorist organizations, to try to defeat our purposes. But they will not succeed."
Foreign-led Islamic militant groups make up only part of the anti-U.S. forces operating in Iraq. Other groups are reported to be composed of Hussein loyalists. It is unclear to what extent Islamists and Hussein loyalists act independently or in loose cooperation.
In a fresh outbreak of violence in Iraq today, some 50 people were killed and dozens wounded when a car bomb ripped through a police station south of Baghdad. No one has so far claimed responsibility for that blast.