Divide and conquer: Al Qaeda's latest tactic in Iraq?

Iraqis reject the idea of a Sunni-Shiite civil war allegedly raised in a letter by suspected Al Qaeda plotter Zarqawi.

A letter branded as a "blueprint" for civil war in Iraq is being rejected by Sunnis and Shiites here who insist that the two communities will never take up arms against each other.

Although there have been flare-ups between the majority Shiites and the traditionally dominant Sunnis - and a broader conflict is often the source of speculation - Iraqis stress that relations between the two communities remain strong and dismiss notions of a civil war.

"There are no problems between the Sunnis and the Shiites," says Bassam Abdullah, a barber in the Shiite-dominated of Sadr City. "The media play up the splits between us. My neighbor is a Sunni and we are friends."

The US military on Wednesday released a letter which it says is a plea to Al-Qaeda for assistance in launching attacks against Shiites to foment a civil war with the Sunni community. The letter was allegedly written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is said to be a chemical and biological weapons expert for Al-Qaeda and who stands accused of planning some of the devastating suicide bombings that have plagued Iraq in recent months.

Complaining of minimal support among Iraq's Sunnis for the insurgency against the US-led occupation, the letter says that the Shiites are the key to expanding the war against the US presence.

"Targeting and striking their religious, political, and military symbols will make them show their rage against the Sunnis and bear their inner vengeance," it says. "If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleeping Sunnis who are fearful of death and destruction at the hands of these Sabeans [the Shiites]."

The letter adds "So the solution, and God only knows, is that we need to bring the Shia into the battle because it is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us."

The American-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is scheduled to hand over sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi authority on June 30, after which the occupation will formally end, although troops from the US and other countries will remain to help ensure stability.

US officials in Baghdad claim the Zarqawi letter is a distress call, a realization that time is running out for Islamic militants wishing to confront US forces in Iraq.

The US military is refusing to release details on how the letter was obtained "for operational security reasons."

But Dan Senor, a senior adviser to the CPA, said that the letter was released to the public "so that more and more Iraqis will be aware of the terrorists' strategy" in the hope that it will undermine support for the resistance.

US officials have predicted a "spike" in attacks against coalition forces and their allies in the Iraqi security services in the run-up to the June handover. That prediction has taken on credence in the past three days, with two massive suicide car bombings outside recruiting offices for the Iraqi police and Army in which more than 100 people died. And insurgents launched an audacious attack Thursday against an Iraqi Civil Defense headquarters in the town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, while it was being visited by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East. General Abizaid and his entourage escaped injury when the headquarters was struck by rocket-propelled grenades.

For many Iraqis, the daily guerrilla operations against the coalition forces are a natural response to occupation. But they have little sympathy for the deadly suicide bombings directed against Iraqis. "There won't be a civil war, but there might be a war of the Sunnis and Shiites against the Wahhabis," says Wassam Rahim, a Shiite computer student, using the term adopted by Iraqis to describe foreign Arab Islamist fighters. "We want to help the Americans against the Wahhabis because they are terrorists. The Wahhabis are hated here - hated by the Sunnis and the Shiites."

Yet despite the claims of intercommunal harmony, tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have been rising. The debate on when to hold full democratic elections has fallen along sectarian lines. Shiites are backing a call by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric, for national elections before the June 30 transition. But Sunnis oppose full elections, fearing marginalization in a power structure dominated by Shiites, the largest sect in Iraq.

Sheikh Mahmoud al-Filahy, who preaches at the Al-Farouq mosque in Baghdad's Hurriyeh district, says the poor security situation in Iraq argues against early elections. Despite his disagreement with the Shiite view on the timetable, Sheikh Filahy says relations with Shiites remain strong. A member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political body, and of the Sunni Board of Muslim Clerics, Sheikh Filahy accuses the US military of failing to prevent an influx of foreign fighters across Iraq's borders who seek to create a fitna, or dispute, between Sunnis and Shiites. "In the long period before the Americans came, there were no disputes between us," he says. "This fitna came after the Americans occupied our country and opened the borders to outsiders."

In December, an explosion at a Sunni mosque in Hurriyeh briefly ruptured the cordial existence between local Sunnis and Shiites, exposing the simmering tensions beneath. Sunnis blamed Shiites for the blast, which killed three men, while the Shiites claimed the explosion was caused by a bomb being assembled by Wahhabis. Sunnis called for revenge.

"The Sunni and Shiite clerics got together and talked with the police, the local council, and the Americans, and agreed to close the case, leading once more to brotherhood and love between us," Sheikh Filahy says.

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