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Two terrorism analysts are raising questions about the authenticity of a letter purportedly written by al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahri to Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
U.S. intelligence officials have expressed "high confidence" in the letter's authenticity, and President Bush referred to it in his weekend radio address, saying it "lays out why al Qaeda views Iraq as 'the place for the greatest battle' of our day."
But terrorism analyst Stephen Ulph of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation said he had nagging questions about the document, which outlines a four-stage strategy for the insurgency in Iraq.
After successfully expelling the Americans, the letter tells Zarqawi, he should "establish an Islamic emirate ... over as much territory as you can ... in Sunni areas" of Iraq.
He then should spread the jihad to neighboring countries, the letter says, setting the stage for all-out war with Israel.
Mr. Ulph expressed surprise at the use of the word "Israel," noting that jihadists typically are loath to name the country, instead using terms like the "Zionist entity."
He said the four stages are well-known to contemporary Islamic warriors and that it seems unlikely that al-Zawahri would find it necessary to spell them out in detail to Zarqawi.
Raymond Ibrahim, an American scholar of Arabic history and language, echoed that point.
"That would be a given," he said. "There's no reason to set it out in so much detail."
Mr. Ibrahim, who plans to publish a collection of al Qaeda documents and has read many of al-Zawahri's writings, said the style of address was both "too chummy and too deferential. ... It doesn't sound too much like him," he said.
Yosri Fouda, chief investigative correspondent for the Arabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera, disagreed. He said the letter "is Zawahri's style, linguistically and ideologically."
Mr. Ulph said that without more information about the provenance of the document, it was impossible to be sure about its authenticity. "It's a just a gut feeling," he said of his assessment.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, cautioned last week against "reading too much into a single source of intelligence."
Committee spokesman Jamal Ware said later that the Michigan Republican had not been trying to cast doubt on the authenticity of the document, but "he would like to see some additional corroboration. It's not definitive."
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