BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 8 — American officials here have obtained a detailed proposal that they conclude was written by an operative in Iraq to senior leaders of Al Qaeda, asking for help to wage a “sectarian war” in Iraq in the next months.
The Americans say they believe that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has long been under scrutiny by the United States for suspected ties to Al Qaeda, wrote the undated 17-page document. Mr. Zarqawi is believed to be operating here in Iraq.
The document was made available to The New York Times on Sunday, with an accompanying translation made by the military. A reporter was allowed to see the Arabic and English versions and to write down large parts of the translation.
The memo says extremists are failing to enlist support inside the country, and have been unable to scare the Americans into leaving. It even laments Iraq’s lack of mountains in which to take refuge.
Yet mounting an attack on Iraq’s Shiite majority could rescue the movement, according to the document. The aim, the document contends, is to prompt a counterattack against the Arab Sunni minority.
Such a “sectarian war” will rally the Sunni Arabs to the religious extremists, the document argues. It says a war against the Shiites must start soon — at “zero hour” — before the Americans hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis. That is scheduled for the end of June.
The American officials in Baghdad said they were confident the account was credible and said they had independently corroborated Mr. Zarqawi’s authorship. If it is authentic, it offers an inside account of the insurgency and its frustrations, and bears out a number of American assumptions about the strength and nature of religious extremists — but it also charts out a battle to come.
The document would also constitute the strongest evidence to date of contacts between extremists in Iraq and Al Qaeda. But it does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era, nor is there any mention of a collaboration with Hussein loyalists.
Yet other interpretations may be possible, including that it was written by some other insurgent, but one who exaggerated his involvement.
Still, a senior United States intelligence official in Washington said, “I know of no reason to believe the letter is bogus in any way.” He said the letter was seized in a raid on a known Qaeda safe house in Baghdad, and did not pass through Iraqi groups that American intelligence officials have said in the past may have provided unreliable information.
Without providing further specifics, the senior intelligence officer said there was additional information pointing to the idea that Al Qaeda was considering mounting or had already mounted attacks on Shiite targets in Iraq.
“This is not the only indication of that,” the official said. The intercepted letter also appears to be the strongest indication since the American invasion last March that Mr. Zarqawi remains active in plotting attacks, the official said.
According to the American officials here, the Arabic-language document was discovered in mid-January when a Qaeda suspect was arrested in Iraq. Under interrogation, the Americans said, the suspect identified Mr. Zarqawi as the author of the document. The man arrested was carrying it on a CD to Afghanistan, the Americans said, and intended to deliver it to people they described as the “inner circle” of Al Qaeda’s leadership. That presumably refers to Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Americans declined to identify the suspect. But the discovery of the disc coincides with the arrest of Hassan Ghul, a Pakistani described by American officials at the time as a courier for the Qaeda network. Mr. Ghul is believed to be the first significant member of that network to have been captured inside Iraq.
The document is written with a rhetorical flourish. It calls the Americans “the biggest cowards that God has created,” but at the same time sees little chance that they will be forced from Iraq.
“So the solution, and only God knows, is that we need to bring the Shia into the battle,” the writer of the document said. “It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us. 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.
The author offers his services and those of his followers to the recipients of the letter, who American officials contend are Al Qaeda’s leaders.
“You noble brothers, leaders of the jihad, we do not consider ourselves people who compete against you, nor would we ever aim to achieve glory for ourselves like you did,” the writer says. “So if you agree with it, and are convinced of the idea of killing the perverse sects, we stand ready as an army for you to work under your guidance and yield to your command.”
In the period before the war, Bush administration officials argued that Mr. Zarqawi constituted the main link between Al Qaeda and Mr. Hussein’s government. Last February at the United Nations, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants.”
Around that time, the Americans believed that Mr. Zarqawi was holed up in the mountains at the Iranian border with Ansar al Islam, a group linked to Al Qaeda that is suspected of mounting attacks against American forces in Iraq.
Since the war ended, little evidence has emerged to support the allegation of a prewar Qaeda connection in Iraq. Last month, Mr. Powell conceded that the American government had found “no smoking gun” linking Mr. Hussein’s government with Al Qaeda.
In the document, the writer indicated that he had directed about 25 suicide bombings inside Iraq. That conforms with an American view that suicide bombings were more likely to be carried out by Iraqi religious extremists and foreigners than by Hussein allies.
“We were involved in all the martyrdom operations — in terms of overseeing, preparing and planning — that took place in this country,” the writer of the document says. “Praise be to Allah, I have completed 25 of these operations, some of them against the Shia and their leaders, the Americans and their military, and the police, the military and the coalition forces.”
But the writer details the difficulties that he and his comrades have been experiencing, both in combating American forces and in enlisting supporters. The Americans are an easy target, according to the author, who nonetheless claims to be impressed by the Americans’ resolve. After significant losses, he writes, “America, however, has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes.”
The Iraqis themselves, the writer says, have not been receptive to taking holy warriors into their homes.
“Many Iraqis would honor you as a guest and give you refuge, for you are a Muslim brother,” according to the document. “However, they will not allow you to make their home a base for operations or a safe house.”
The writer contends that the American efforts to set up Iraqi security services have succeeded in depriving the insurgents of allies, particularly in a country where kinship networks are extensive.
“The problem is you end up having an army and police connected by lineage, blood and appearance,” the document says. “When the Americans withdraw, and they have already started doing that, they get replaced by these agents who are intimately linked to the people of this region.”
With some exasperation, the author writes: “We can pack up and leave and look for another land, just like what has happened in so many lands of jihad. Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases.
“By God, this is suffocation!” the writer says.
But there is still time to mount a war against the Shiites, thereby to set off a wider war, he writes, if attacks are well under way before the turnover of sovereignty in June. After that, the writer suggests, any attacks on Shiites will be viewed as Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that will find little support among the people.
“We have to get to the zero hour in order to openly begin controlling the land by night, and after that by day, God willing,” the writer says. “The zero hour needs to be at least four months before the new government gets in place.”
That is the timetable, the author concludes, because, after that, “How can we kill their cousins and sons?”
“The Americans will continue to control from their bases, but the sons of this land will be the authority,” the letter states. “This is the democracy. We will have no pretexts.”
Douglas Jehl contributed reporting from Washington for this article.