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US: Al Qaeda operative sought civil war in Iraq
Updated: 2004-02-10 08:57

An anti-American operative in Iraq appealed for help from al-Qaeda leaders to help spark a sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in an effort to "tear the country apart," U.S. officials said Monday.

The officials confirmed a report Monday in The New York Times about the alleged plan, which was outlined in a 17-page letter that U.S. forces confiscated from an al-Qaeda suspect in Iraq.

The US-led coalition believe Zarqawi, seen here on a mugshot, wrote a memo that proposes that Al-Qaeda provoke a Sunni-Shiite conflict to disrupt the planned handover to a transitional government in Iraq.  [AFP/File]
"We believe the report and document are credible. We take the report seriously," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy chief of operations, told a news conference. He said the letter would be made public later.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the letter was on a computer disk found on Hassan Ghul, a senior al-Qaeda courier arrested last month by Kurdish forces as he tried to enter the country from Iran.

The Times said its reporter viewed the Arabic document and a military translation on Sunday. It said the document is the strongest evidence to date of contacts between extremists in Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Kimmitt said the letter was believed written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda.

"We are persuaded that al-Zarqawi was the author of the letter. It is our understanding that this letter was being taken out of the country for delivery abroad," he said.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said the letter talks about "a strategy of provoking violence, targeted at Shiites leaders that would result in reprisals against other ethnic groups within the country."

The strategy is "focused on provoking ethnic sectarian warfare in this country in the hope of tearing this country apart," Senor said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking aboard Air Force One, said the United States would not be detered from its mission of establishing democracy in Iraq.

"Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism. There are foreign terrorists who realize the stakes are high and they seek to do everything they can to undermine the aspirations of the Iraqi people," he said. "But democracy and freedom are taking root in Iraq and there's no turning back."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the the letter was very revealing because it shows that insurgents "haven't given up."

"They're trying to get more terrorists into Iraq and they're trying to create more terrorist organizations to try to defeat our purposes," Powell said. "But they will not succeed."

The Times report quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying that American forces arrested a man who had the document on a computer disc and was taking it to Afghanistan to get it to al-Qaeda's senior leaders.

The author of the document claimed he had directed about 25 suicide bombings inside Iraq, but said the resistance against the U.S. occupation was struggling to recruit Iraqis and to combat American troops.

Senor said "it is clear that the type of techniques we have seen all these have fingerprints of al-Qaeda and foreign fighters."

The letter expresses frustration over efforts to force the United States out of Iraq and suggests that attacks on Shiites would prompt retaliation against Sunnis and a cycle of widening violence, the newspaper said.

"It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us," the letter says, according to the New York Times. "If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis who are fearful of destruction and death at the hands" of Shiites, it said.

Kimmitt said the wording of the document reflects the author's desperation.

"In many ways this guy is disappointed at his lack of success ... What it does show is that concerted efforts (on part of the Iraqi people and the coalition) is the greatest power he is afraid of. It is almost a sign of desperation," he said.

Senor said the author of the letter talks about "taking action and setting up operations before the June 30 hand over" of power by the Americans to a sovereign Iraqi government.

He said the letter also warns that "the biggest bulwark against the success of this strategy would be the continued standing up of Iraqi security forces, the continued American resolve and the hand over of sovereignty to an Iraqi government."

"All three we are in the process of doing right now, he said.

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