The Feb. 22 bombing of the golden mosque in Samarra - considered one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines - triggered the unprecedented levels of sectarian violence currently under way in Iraq. The hand behind this strike at the Shiite majority in all probability points to Al Qaeda, intent on fomenting the low-level civil strife that has churned for months into something far greater.
A full-out civil war in Iraq would strengthen Al Qaeda's growing reach in Iraq. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in this Land of the Two Rivers, has long expressed a vitriolic hatred for the "heretic and atheist" Shiites, the "secret allies of the Americans." In a June 15, 2004, letter to Osama bin Laden, Mr. Zarqawi described Shiites as "a sect of treachery and betrayal through the ages."
He had earlier claimed responsibility for the assassination of Iraqi Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim in August 2003. And his expressed hatred for the Shiites leads me to believe he was also behind the March 2, 2004, massacre of 185 Shiite pilgrims in Karbala and Baghdad and a string of other attacks on Shiite civilians. Studying this pattern of aggression reveals that Zarqawi's strategy to create such internal chaos to the detriment of US troops and the Iraqi military is indeed being carried out.
Thus it is highly likely that Zarqawi's group carried out the bombing of the golden mosque in Samarra last month. The Shiite majority, who have most to gain from maintaining stability in Iraq, have to this point exercised some restraint in retaliating against attacks on their members, but the destruction of one of their most sacred shrines unleashed a wave of reprisals and summary executions that has already resulted in hundreds (if not thousands) of Sunni and Shiite deaths.
In a letter to Zarqawi dated June 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. bin Laden's deputy, questioned whether targeting Shiite civilians might alienate the more moderate Sunni element from Al Qaeda. Zarqawi, however, disregarded such concerns, reasoning that in the event of the all-out civil war he hopes for, moderate and radical differences will disappear - a prognosis that may well prove gruesomely correct.
Zarqawi's rationale is threefold: Civil war in Iraq will undermine the current political process by preventing the engagement of Sunni factions and unseating the Shiite leaders; it will render the country ungovernable and ensure the failure of the United States project in the region; finally, an expanded conflict would draw on the huge reserves of Sunni Muslim military support available in neighboring countries - either on a national level or in terms of individual mujahideen pouring into Iraq to protect fellow Sunnis from annihilation at the hands of Iran-backed Shiite militia.
Sectarian civil strife could rapidly spread throughout the region. Many Sunni leaders are already unnerved by the growing influence of Shiite Iran in Iraqi internal affairs, and sectarian tensions have been brewing in several countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. Civil war in Iraq may well prompt the Kurds to declare independence, drawing Turkey into the arena.
All of this is in keeping with the five-stage plan posted on the Internet in March 2005 by Al Qaeda's main military strategist, Mohammed Makkawi, who described the third stage thus: "expand the [Iraqi] conflict throughout the region and engage the US in a long war of attrition ... create a jihad Triangle of Horror starting in Afghanistan, running through Iran and Southern Iraq then via southern Turkey and south Lebanon to Syria."
The neoconservatives in the US have been pursuing a dangerous policy of constructive anarchy in the Middle East, planning to rebuild it according to their own design and requirements. As long ago as 1997, former secretary of Defense Richard Perle, along with other architects of the Iraq war, wrote that a post-Saddam Iraq would be "ripped apart" by sectarian conflict but he urged US military intervention nonetheless. This policy has completely backfired and the US has lost any semblance of control over the political process and the leaders they created. Instead of the promised "national unity government," we are witnessing a level of ethnic cleansing last seen in the Balkans conflict.
Al Qaeda's project, meanwhile, is one of destructive anarchy with the aim of removing the US and corrupt dictatorships from the region in order to clear the way for its ultimate goal: uniting the Muslim world under one Islamic leader, or caliph.
Al Qaeda has become a major player in the Middle East, having been virtually wiped out in Afghanistan after 9/11. This is entirely because of the US invasion of Iraq, which provided Zarqawi's fledgling mujahideen with a new haven and training ground, and inflamed the jihadi spirit in thousands of young men who flock to join him every week.
It is possible that Zarqawi has overestimated the cohesive effect of the sectarian conflict among the various Sunni factions in the present insurgency. The eventual loyalty of the large Baathist element in the insurgency is another unknown.
However, a regenerated Al Qaeda is flourishing and expanding. With its new horizontal structure, it has loosely affiliated "branches" in several regions including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Europe. It now represents a real threat to both oil production and Israel, the twin pillars of America's foreign policy.
Iraq has become a magnet for radicalism as it heads toward fragmentation. The situation for the US military is increasingly dangerous. America is already engaged in a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program; if this escalates, as seems increasingly likely, the nearly 140,000 US soldiers in Iraq will become hostages at the mercy of their present allies, the Iran-backed Shiite militia, and their current enemies, the Sunni insurgent groups and Al Qaeda. The risk for the US has to be that those who are divided on sectarian grounds in Iraq will briefly pause in their destruction of each other to turn on a new, common enemy.
For Al Qaeda, everything is going entirely according to plan.
• Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper in London, is the author of "The Secret History of Al Qaeda."