Reputed Al Qaeda Memo Outlines Iraq Strategy

U.S. officials have released what they say is a strategy memo from al Qaeda. Steve Inskeep talks with Army Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who says the U.S. is working to drive a wedge between al Qaeda in Iraq and that country's populace.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now as they waited for the vote, US officials released what they say is a strategy memo from al-Qaeda. An al-Qaeda statement says this document is a fake, but according to the US, the author was Ayman al-Zawahiri. He's often described as the number-two leader of al-Qaeda. He reportedly sent the letter to the top al-Qaeda figure in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. US officials say this document lays out a long-term strategy. We talked about the intercepted letter yesterday with the US commander in Iraq, General George Casey.

General GEORGE CASEY (US Commander in Iraq): I passed it in Arabic to the prime minister and he was, frankly, quite struck by the--how stark the plans for Iraq were: get the United States out, establish a caliphate, export terror to the region and get on to Israel. And, frankly, that coming on top of what Zarqawi did on the 14th of September when he murdered a group of day laborers standing in line to get a job and then declared war on the Shia, this can really help us in driving a wedge between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the rest of the Iraqi people.

INSKEEP: Zawahiri in this letter seems to be saying that certain killings in Iraq by the insurgents and by outsiders have not been productive. He seems to be saying, even as Americans have said, that this is a battle for hearts and minds.

Gen. CASEY: He did. And, frankly, he also talks about Zarqawi had to alter his message to gain the support of the Iraqi people. And I think he's being quite clear with Zarqawi that what he's doing is not working not only inside Iraq but it's also not working around the region.

INSKEEP: General, al-Zawahiri in this letter also writes, `More than half this battle is taking place in a battlefield of media.' Do you agree with that?

Gen. CASEY: More than half, certainly not. But it certainly is a war of images and perception. And the perceptions that he is creating of insecurity here in Iraq through these car bombs are definitely impacting the way the war is progressing, both inside and outside of Iraq. So it is a battle of media and a battle of perception.

INSKEEP: Does the United States continue to have a disadvantage of sorts when it comes to trying to win an argument or even have an argument before the Islamic world?

Gen. CASEY: That's a fair question. And we are working through the Iraqis to drive a wedge between the al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi people. And then most of the rest of the insurgents can be influenced, we hope, through the political process.

INSKEEP: You're trying to influence people through the political process. It looks like the enemy is also now trying to influence people through the political process. And looking at this as a very, very long conflict, does that make your job harder?

Gen. CASEY: I wouldn't say the enemy is trying to influence things through the political process. They are--Zarqawi is actively trying to disrupt the political process and it's one of the problems he has with the Iraqi people, because they're interested in the future. Does it make my job harder that this is a longer term struggle going on here? I don't know if it makes it harder. It certainly makes it longer. But we have built a strategy that is based on increasing the capability of the Iraqis to deal with the situation and we're in the process of implementing that.

INSKEEP: Now, General, in some recent congressional testimony, you were talking about the desire to pull some American troops from Iraq when conditions permit and you said it's about dependency, meaning that you want the Iraqis not to be dependent in the end on US forces and allied forces. As you look forward over the next few years, are you prepared to let Iraqis run the risk of being defeated in order to take that step of making them stand on their own two feet?

Gen. CASEY: I mean, that's, again, a very good question. And when I go around and talk to all of my subordinate commanders, I tell them that that is exactly a judgment that has to be made at the battalion and the brigade level. But our strategy is designed to not automatically just give it to them and say, `You've got it now' and walk away. But it's designed to put them in the lead so they're actually leading operations with our help, so while they're leading, we intend to gradually build their capabilities so they can do this by themselves.

INSKEEP: You said in congressional testimony that in your estimation, the border between Iraq and Syria, the border region, is not under control at this time. What has made that region so important and also so difficult to control?

Gen. CASEY: What's made it so important is it is the major route that the foreign fighters and the suicide bombers take to get into Iraq. What's so hard about it, it's far away, there are logistical challenges in supporting the Iraqi security forces that work out there. And then there's a tribal element really on both sides of the borders. And there's historical smuggling contacts that, you know, have been out there for hundreds of years. So put all that together and it's taking a very sustained effort by us and our Iraqi colleagues here to go back and take that border back and we will do that, I believe, here prior to the election.

INSKEEP: Do you think that you're killing insurgents faster than insurgents are being recruited at this time?

Gen. CASEY: You know, we go around and around on the numbers of the people in the insurgency and our job--what we're out to do is not necessarily kill everybody. Whether we're killing them faster than they're signing up is not necessarily a measure of success here. Whether they're joining the political process and voting, that's what we're primarily concerned with.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess this is what I'm driving at. I know that the two things you're trying to do simultaneously is build up the Iraqi security forces so they're stronger and also reduce the threat to Iraq by battering down the insurgency. Is the insurgency weaker than it was a year ago?

Gen. CASEY: I tell you, Steve, it's about the same. It's still contained in about four of the 18 provinces, which it's contained. It's not spread to a countrywide insurgency. Now what's changed and what's become more visible outside of Iraq has been the suicide car bomb attacks on the Iraqi people. That is an element that has increased, although I will tell you that it has gone steadily downward over time.

INSKEEP: General George Casey is the US commander in Iraq. General, thanks very much.

Gen. CASEY: OK, Steve. Nice to talk to you.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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