updated 10/2/2006 7:27:51 PM ET 2006-10-02T23:27:51

A top al-Qaida official warned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi six months before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike that he would be removed as the terror group’s head in Iraq if he did not consult with the group’s leadership on major issues.

An al-Qaida leader named “Atiyah” cautioned al-Zarqawi in an 11-page letter against the war he had declared on Shiite Muslims.

The letter also criticized attacks the Iraqi branch had carried out in neighboring countries — an apparent reference to last year’s triple suicide attacks on hotels in the Jordanian capital of Amman that killed dozens.

“Anyone who commits tyranny and aggression upon the people and causes corruption within the land and drives people away from us and our faith and our jihad and from the religion and the message that we carry, then he must be taken to task,” Atiyah wrote, saying he was in the northwest Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan.

“We must direct him to what is right, just, and for the best. Otherwise, we would have to push him aside and keep him away from the sphere of influence and replace him and so forth,” he wrote.

Atiyah tells al-Zarqawi that on major issues he should consult with “your leadership, Sheik Osama (bin Laden) and the doctor (Ayman al-Zawahri) and their brothers ... as well as your Mujahedeen brothers in Iraq.”

Two government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the letter is believed to be authentic. They said Atiyah is considered to be bin Laden’s emissary to Iraq and served as a link between the al-Qaida leader and al-Zarqawi.

It wasn’t clear when Atiyah, a 37-year-old Libyan whose full name is Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, took over that role or precisely how close to bin Laden he is.

One of the officials said he is a religious scholar with knowledge of the Koran and Islamic law and a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. He joined al-Qaida in the early 1990s, when it was first formed, and spent some time in the mid-1990s in Algeria.

Atiyah is believed to be an explosives expert, the official said.

First revealed by Iraq’s National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie on Sept. 18, The Washington Post reported in Monday’s editions that the letter was the first document to emerge from what the U.S. military described as a “treasure trove” of information uncovered from Iraqi safe houses at the time of al-Zarqawi’s death.

Al-Zarqawi was asked in the letter to correspond with al-Qaida in Waziristan through reliable messengers and was told not to attack Sunni clerics in Iraq or abroad — an apparent reference to the Sunni clerics who were assassinated after calling for Iraqis to take part in last year’s general elections.

“The war is long and our road is long. What is important is to keep the good reputation of yourself, the mujahedeen and especially your group,” Atiyah wrote.

The letter also praised al-Zarqawi, saying “you have hurt America, the largest infidel Crusader forces in history.”

It was dated the 10th of the Muslim month of Zhul Qadah, which was around mid-December last year and about six months before the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad.

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