NEW YORK – To help "tear the country apart," an opponent of the U.S. military operation in Iraq asked Al Qaeda leaders for help in creating a sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, U.S. officials said Monday.
American officials obtained a detailed 17-page proposal for such a war that they said came from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search ), a Jordanian who is suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda. The story was first reported in The New York Times, which said U.S. forces confiscated the letter from an Al Qaeda suspect in Iraq.
"We believe the report and document are credible. We take the report seriously," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt (search ), deputy chief of operations, said at a news conference. He said the letter would be made public later.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the letter was on a computer disk found on Hassan Ghul (search ), a senior Al Qaeda courier arrested last month by Kurdish forces as he tried to enter the country from Iran.
The Times said its reporter viewed the Arabic document and a military translation on Sunday. It said the document is the strongest evidence to date of contacts between extremists in Iraq and Al Qaeda.
"We are persuaded that al-Zarqawi was the author of the letter. It is our understanding that this letter was being taken out of the country for delivery abroad," he said.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor (search) said the letter talks about "a strategy of provoking violence, targeted at Shiites leaders that would result in reprisals against other ethnic groups within the country."
The strategy is "focused on provoking ethnic sectarian warfare in this country in the hope of tearing this country apart," Senor said.
The Times report quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying that American forces arrested a man who had the document on a computer disk and was taking it to Afghanistan to get it to Al Qaeda's senior leaders.
The author of the document claimed he had directed about 25 suicide bombings inside Iraq, but said the resistance against the U.S. occupation was struggling to recruit Iraqis and to combat American troops.
The memo even offers a kind of praise for U.S. forces, saying "America, however, has no intention of leaving no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes."
Senor said, "it is clear that the type of techniques we have seen all these have fingerprints of Al Qaeda and foreign fighters."
The letter expresses frustration over efforts to force the United States out of Iraq and suggests that attacks on Shiites would prompt retaliation against Sunnis and a cycle of widening violence, the newspaper said.
"It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us," the letter says, according to the New York Times. "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, it said.
Kimmitt said the wording of the document reflects the author's desperation.
"In many ways this guy is disappointed at his lack of success ... What it does show is that concerted efforts [on part of the Iraqi people and the coalition] is the greatest power he is afraid of. It is almost a sign of desperation," he said.
Senor said the author of the letter talks about "taking action and setting up operations before the June 30 handover" of power by the Americans to a sovereign Iraqi government.
He said the letter also warns that "the biggest bulwark against the success of this strategy would be the continued standing-up of Iraqi security forces, the continued American resolve and the handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government."
"All three we are in the process of doing right now," he said.
Also Monday, senior Defense officials told Fox News that number 48 on the list of most-wanted former Saddam regime officials turned himself in to coalition forces on Saturday.
Muhsin Khadir al-Khalafagi, a former Baath Party regional official, was the Three of Diamonds in the card deck, though his is one of the cards that only features a silhouette, as there is currently no photo available.
With this apprehension, the coalition now has either captured or killed 45 of the top 55 figures.
Fox News' Bret Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.