Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, has urged the militant network’s leader in Iraq to prepare for an Islamic government to take over the country when U.S. forces leave, according to a letter released on Tuesday by U.S. intelligence officials.
“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,” Zawahri told Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a July 9 letter that U.S. officials say was obtained during counterterrorism operations in Iraq.
“The aftermath of collapse of American power in Vietnam — and how they ran and left their agents — is noteworthy,” the letter said.
“I stress again to you and all your brothers the need to direct the political action equally with the military action,” it said.
The Pentagon disclosed the letter’s existence on October 6, telling reporters it appeared to be authentic. But military and intelligence officials have not released details of where, when, how or by whom it was obtained.
Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant whose insurgent network was endorsed by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year, has emerged as the most prominent leader of an increasingly deadly Sunni Arab insurgency.
His affiliation with al Qaeda has allowed him to expand his network by incorporating indigenous Iraqi groups, intelligence officials say.
But the Zawahri letter, released by the office of U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte, appeared to show divisions between Zarqawi and al Qaeda’s top leaders on issues such as the killing of Shi’ite civilians and hostages.
The document endorsed the formation of a Muslim state in Iraq that could grow to encompass the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and the Levant.
The letter’s contents were released days before Iraqis were to vote in a referendum on a new constitution in which U.S. authorities hope for a large turnout among Sunni Arabs.
Many Sunni Arabs oppose the referendum, however, and some experts believe Zarqawi declared war on Iraq’s majority Sh’ite population last month to curry favor among the disaffected.
But the Zawahri letter warned Zarqawi that the killing of Shi’ite civilians and hostages risked alienating Sunnis at a time when al Qaeda in Iraq should be seeking popular support for a new religious state.
“It is imperative that, in addition to force, there be an appeasement of Muslims and a sharing with them in governance,” Zawahri says in the document of more than 12 pages.
“It doesn’t appear that the mujahideen, much less al Qaeda in Iraq, will lay claim to governance without the Iraqi people,” the letter states.
Zawahri also urges Zarqawi to pursue a political movement capable of attracting not only Islamic fighters but tribal elders, scientists, merchants and “all the distinguished ones who are not sullied by appeasing the occupation.”
“We don’t want to repeat the mistake of the Taliban, who restricted participation in governance,” the letter says. “They did not have any representation for the Afghan people in their ruling regime, so the result was that the Afghan people disengaged themselves from them.”
Zawahri also asked Zarqawi for a $100,000 payment to make up for funding lost since May when Pakistani forces captured Abu Faraj al Liby, a Libyan operative that U.S. officials described as al Qaeda’s third most important figure.
Negroponte’s office, which posted the letter in English and Arabic on its Web site at www.dni.gov, said the release was approved only after officials were assured that its disclosure would not affect ongoing intelligence or military operations.