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Iraq Transition

Al Qaeda letter called 'chilling'

Al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi: Prepare for U.S. to leave Iraq soon

From David Ensor

Ayman al-Zawahiri in an image from a videotape released in September.



Acts of terror

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senior U.S. intelligence officials call a letter from al Qaeda's No. 2 man to its leader in Iraq "chilling" because of how "calm, clear and well argued" it is in urging preparation for a U.S. departure from Iraq.

According to a translation of the 6,300-word letter provided by the U.S. government, Ayman al-Zawahiri predicts "the Americans will exit soon" from Iraq and says "things may develop faster than we imagine."

U.S. leaders have refused to set a timetable for troop withdrawals, saying such a move would embolden insurgents. Military leaders have suggested a reduction in 2006 is possible, depending on the preparedness of Iraqi security forces.

But in the letter, al-Zawahiri is clearly worried that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with his televised beheadings of hostages and attacks on Shiites, could lose what he calls a "media battle" for the "hearts and minds" of Muslims. (Full textexternal link)

"I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media," al-Zawahiri writes.

"The Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable ... the scenes of slaughtering the hostages," he warns al-Zarqawi, self-proclaimed leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Zawahiri also criticizes al-Zarqawi's attacks on Shiites and reminds him that Shiite Iran is holding more than 100 al Qaeda prisoners -- many of them leaders such as Saif al-Adel and Osama bin Laden's son, Saad.

"Is the opening of another front now in addition to the front against the Americans and the government a wise decision?" al-Zawahiri asks. "Or does this conflict with Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar?"

A senior U.S. intelligence official said he was "absolutely confident" the letter is genuine.

This official described the letter's language as that of "an al Qaeda elder to an occasionally hotheaded field commander" -- language, sources said, that President Bush had seen before he delivered a speech on the war on terror last week.

"It is cowardice that seeks to kill children and the elderly with car bombs and cuts the throat of a bound captive and targets worshippers leaving a mosque," President Bush said October 6. (Full story)

Details on when or how the letter was intercepted have not been disclosed, and the full text had not previously been released.

Its existence was publicly confirmed last week after what officials called an incomplete and partially inaccurate version was leaked to news organizations. (Full story)

A senior U.S. official said the text was released because the letter would no longer hurt ongoing operations or compromise intelligence sources and methods. The American public and the world, he said, "should be fully informed about the enemy."

The letter outlines a four-stage plan to expand the war in Iraq: Expel U.S. forces, establish an Islamic authority, take the fight to Iraq's secular neighbors and battle with Israel -- "because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity."

The letter says: "We must be ready starting now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United Nations and their plans to fill the void behind them."

Dated two days after the London terror attacks of July 7, the letter makes no mention of those attacks and pleads for more information, suggesting al-Zawahiri , who has a $25 million reward on his head, feels cut off.

He describes difficulties he and al Qaeda are facing more than a dozen times and says the real danger to him comes from Pakistani army operations in the tribal areas.

Al-Zawahiri even asks al-Zarqawi for $100,000, saying the recent capture of a high-ranking al Qaeda operative has left him in need of cash.

The Egyptian-born physician also says the U.S. hunt has taken a toll on his family -- that his "favorite wife," son and daughter have been killed, but that he has fathered a daughter while in hiding and his health is fine.

Asked about the letter Sunday, Iraq's national security adviser said "these people are the dark forces, the anti-Iraqi forces." (Full story)

"They are frightened of democracy in Iraq," Mowaffak al-Rubaie told CNN. "They want to bring us to Iraq a Taliban-style regime, like the one which used to be in Afghanistan, and the Iraqi people will not have this."

"We are so determined to proceed with our political process," he said, first with Saturday's national referendum on a proposed constitution and then, if that is approved, parliamentary elections by year's end.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have predicted insurgent violence will surge in the days leading to the referendum in an effort to keep voters from the polls.

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