The United States has obtained a letter from Osama bin Laden's deputy to the leader of Iraq's insurgency that outlines a long-term strategic vision for a global jihad, with the next phase of the war to be taken into Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, according to U.S. officials.
But the letter, described by one senior administration official as a "treatise" from Ayman Zawahiri, also warns Abu Musab Zarqawi against alienating the Islamic world, and virtually reprimands the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda for beheading hostages and then distributing videotapes, officials said.
Zawahiri also requests financial support from his ally in Iraq and then asks for more information about the insurgency there -- so al Qaeda is as informed as the United States about the activities, the officials said.
The senior administration official said the 13-page document is dated in early July and provides a "comprehensive look at al Qaeda's strategy in Iraq and beyond" with "chilling clarity."
U.S. officials said the letter was captured during counterterrorism operations in Iraq, but they were unwilling to specify how or when, and would provide only two quotes from it. The senior official said it has been authenticated "based on multiple sources over an extended period of time." They released information about the letter to four news organizations -- saying word of its existence had started leaking out to reporters -- on the same day that President Bush delivered a speech about the war on terrorism.
The letter of instructions and requests outlines a four-stage plan, according to officials: First, expel American forces from Iraq. Second, establish a caliphate over as much of Iraq as possible. Third, extend the jihad to neighboring countries, with specific reference to Egypt and the Levant -- a term that describes Syria and Lebanon. And finally, war against Israel.
U.S. officials say they were struck by the letter's emphasis on the centrality of Iraq to al Qaeda's long-term mission. One of the two excerpts provided by officials quotes Zawahiri, a former doctor from Egypt, telling his Jordanian-born ally, "I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam's history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era."
But bin Laden's deputy also purportedly makes clear that the war would not end with an American withdrawal and that anything other than religious rule in Iraq would be dangerous.
"And it is that the Mujaheddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal. We will return to having the secularists and traitors holding sway over us," the letter reportedly says.
In one indication of tensions between the al Qaeda leadership and its Iraqi division, U.S. officials said, Zawahiri writes about the need to maintain popular support. He is critical of Shiite Muslims and says a clash between the Sunni-dominated movement and the Shiite sect is inevitable, officials said, but he rebukes the leader of Iraq's insurgency for its brutal tactics -- noting that hostages can just as effectively be killed with bullets rather than by beheading, officials said.
The letter may indicate al Qaeda's recognition of Muslim public opinion, said one Middle East scholar.
"If the letter's true, it's new because they haven't shown any particular avoidance of certain ruthless tactics. It says to me they are concerned about the way they are being perceived in the Muslim world," said Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland.
"The vast majority of people in the Arab world sympathize with al Qaeda only because it champions their issues and speaks their language and it's seemingly effective against their enemies. But most would not want al Qaeda to be the rulers. They would be repulsed to have someone like Zarqawi, who is beheading people, to head their government," he said.
Zarqawi appears not to have heeded the message, because insurgents have continued the beheadings, including two this week.
Bin Laden's deputy has spoken before about the broad plans for the al Qaeda movement. In a book smuggled out of Afghanistan in December 2001, Zawahiri said the goal of jihad is to establish a religious state throughout the Islamic world and "reinstate its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory."
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.