Prague, 15 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is on the face of it a summons to civil war. In his as yet unauthenticated message, al-Zarqawi took responsibility for yesterday's carnage in Baghdad -- the single heaviest death toll in the city since the fall of Saddam Hussein -- and declared "all-out war on the Shi'a wherever they are in Iraq."
The 12 or more coordinated attacks that traumatized the capital yesterday appear to have aimed to kill as many Shi'a Iraqis as possible -- in particular, the devastating car-bomb attack in Kahdhimiya, a poor Shi'a district of Baghdad with high unemployment. Few Sunnis or Kurds would have been present.
On an Internet website, a tape purporting to be from Al-Qaeda in Iraq celebrated what it called the "good news" of these attacks, which, it said, were revenge for the Sunni people of Tal Afar -- a reference to the recent offensive by U.S. and Iraqi forces against insurgents in that city.
The Iraqi government is trying to put a positive spin on the attacks. Defense Minister Sad'un al-Dulaymi described them as a desperate response to the government offensive in Tal Afar.
"Tal Afar was unfortunately a base from where evil was spread to all the cities of Iraq, and when the Iraqi government sought to restore law and order in the town and, at the request of the people themselves -- and with their help -- sought to hit the murderers from Al-Qaeda, I think they went mad," al-Dulaymi said.
Government troops, he said, had wiped out the insurgents before they could get away.
"What infuriated them most of all is that none of those who were in Tal Afar managed to escape, not even those who tried to run to other cities," al-Dulaymi said. "They were killed in the desert or arrested. The fact is they wanted to take revenge on innocent civilians, so they hit lovely Baghdad."
"What infuriated them most of all is that none of those [insurgents] who were in Tal Afar managed to escape, not even those who tried to run to other cities." Defense Minister al-Dulaymi
And al-Dulaymi warned that other towns that had sheltered insurgents in the past should take heed of events in Tal Afar.
"The people of Samarra came to us today and said they would work hard to help maintain law and order," al-Dulaymi said. "We gave them a month's notice to show that they really can throw out the bad guys."
According to the British newspaper "The Times," which cited U.S. military intelligence sources, al-Zarqawi has united Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq with the express aim of provoking civil war.
If these reports are accurate, Al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million price on his head for his capture, can be expected to launch a series of similar attacks in the weeks before the 15 October referendum on Iraq's new draft constitution. The aim: to provoke a Shi'a backlash and spread chaos.
The shadow of civil war is darkening over Iraq just as Iraqi leaders struggle to forge an agreement on the constitution. A draft of the document was handed over to the United Nations this week after minor changes were made.
One of the changes sought to address Sunni Arab demands that the draft constitution more strongly stress Iraq's ties to the Arab world. The amended draft now states that Iraq "is a founding member of the Arab league and is committed to its charter."
U.S. President George W. Bush hailed the draft as a historic achievement of which the Iraqi people could be proud.
But Sunnis are still unhappy with the document, which they fear could enhance the strength of the Sunni and Kurdish communities at their expense. Many Sunni leaders have said they will try to get voters in Sunni-majority areas to reject the constitution in the referendum -- leaving it uncertain whether the poll will further unite or divide Iraq's communities.