How Al Qaeda Views a Long Iraq War ; A Letter from Al Qaeda Leaders Found in Iraq Shows That the Group Sees the War as a Boon for Its Cause

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In appearances across the US, President Bush has been campaigning against withdrawing troops from Iraq, arguing that to leave now would hand a historic victory to Al Qaeda and inspire new generations of jihadists to attack the US.

But a letter that has been translated and released by the US military indicates that Al Qaeda itself sees the continued American presence in Iraq as a boon for the terror network, which has recently shown signs of expanding into the Palestinian territories and North Africa.

"The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness ... indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest," says the writer, who goes by the name Atiyah. The letter, released last week, was recovered in the rubble of the Iraqi house where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by a US bomb in June.

If the letter is accurate, it provides a window into the group's strategic thinking on Iraq that differs starkly from the one the Bush administration has been expressing publicly - a view the president reiterated Wednesday when he said that Al Qaeda believes that "America is weak, and if they can kill enough innocent people we'll retreat. That's precisely what they want."

While the letter was released only recently, Atiyah, thought to be a senior Al Qaeda leader whose full name Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, apparently wrote it last December from the Pakistani region of Waziristan. It has surfaced among a flurry of other communiques from Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a videotape this week in which he lashed out at Mr. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI. On Sept. 28, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, believed to have replaced Mr. Zarqawi as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, published an Internet statement in which he reached out to Sunni tribal leaders who have been in conflict with Al Qaeda. And a new group claiming to be Al Qaeda in Palestine issued a video attacking Palestinian political leaders.

But the Atiyah letter, reflecting as it does the candid opinions of Al Qaeda, rather than the group's propaganda statement crafted for public consumption, appears to offer the most insight. It is largely focused on the fact that Zarqawi's tactics were alienating Iraqi Sunni leaders, and urges him to move with more caution.

He strongly warned Zarqawi against assassinating Sunni leaders. Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization that has been trying to use minority Sunni anxiety in Iraq to build support. The letter also called the Zarqawi-organized bombing of three hotels in Jordan in 2005 a "mistake," arguing that expanding Iraq's jihad beyond its borders too soon will cost them public support.

At one point, Atiyah muses that perhaps Zarqawi should step down from his leadership role, "if you find at some point someone who is better and more suitable than you." Since Zarqawi's death, a "more suitable" figure from Al Qaeda's standpoint has indeed emerged. …