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Al-Qaida letter changes rules of war on terror

While the fight in Iraq is bloody and intense, it has not fit neatly into the definition of "war." A letter that U.S. officials intercepted recently makes that label frighteningly appropriate.

Calling our fight in Iraq a war has been problematic for two main reasons.

One, the enemy has no geopolitical base. While most of the violence occurs in Iraq, many of those inciting the violence are from other countries.

Two, the enemy has exhibited no clear chain of authority. Many of the attacks have appeared spontaneous. Al-Qaida leaders have provided the emotional impetus for terrorist attacks, but since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, only rarely have had operational control over the insurgency. Unlike Germany in World War II and North Vietnam in the Vietnam War, there is no head of state with whom we can negotiate.

A recently intercepted letter changes that.

In the letter, believed to be from al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the de facto leader of terrorists in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a clear chain of authority emerges.

In the letter, al-Zawahiri questions al-Zarqawi's tactics against Shia Muslims in Iraq.

"Does this conflict with Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar?" the writer asked.

Al-Zawahiri also demonstrates an awareness of world politics that sounds more like a head of state than an irrational terrorist.

"I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media," he wrote.

The letter is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it suggests negotiations with al-Zawahiri for an end to the conflict might be effective, although many would find such negotiations repugnant. The letter also gives some hope for a lessening of the conflict, albeit purely for strategic reasons.

The most significant shift presented by the letter, however, is a frightening one. It suggests that a leader with no geographical authority has worldwide operational authority.

Even the United States struggles to extend its authority beyond its own borders. That al-Qaida has maintained such authority despite four years of U.S. effort bodes poorly for the ultimate outcome of what has become a massive war unconstrained by political boundaries.

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