American forces find what they believe is headquarters of al-Zarqawi group
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – U.S. troops sweeping through Fallujah on Thursday said they believe they have found the main headquarters of the insurgent group headed by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In video shot by an embedded CNN cameraman, soldiers walked through an imposing building with concrete columns and with a large sign in Arabic on the wall reading “Al Qaida Organization” and “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”
Inside the building, U.S. soldiers found documents, old computers, notebooks, photographs and copies of the Quran.
Al-Zarqawi last month renamed his group al-Qaida in Iraq, and his followers have been blamed for a number of deadly bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages, including three Americans and a Briton. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for his capture or killing – the same amount as for Osama bin Laden.
In neighboring Jordan, authorities detained al-Zarqawi’s nephew near the border with Iraq, a distant relative and a clergyman close to the family said Thursday.
The clergyman and the relative, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said security officials had informed the family that Mohammed al-Harahsheh was detained last month. The relative said al-Harahsheh was being questioned on suspicion of attempting to infiltrate into Iraq to join his militant uncle.
Calls to Al-Zarqawi’s family home in Zarqa, an industrial city northeast of the Jordanian capital, Amman, went unanswered.
Also, the senior U.S. Marine commander in Iraq said the U.S.-led offensive launched last week in Fallujah has “broken the back of the insurgency” by seizing their main base of operations.
“We feel right now that we have, as I mentioned, broken the back of the insurgency. We’ve taken away this safe haven,” Lt. Gen. John Sattler told reporters at the Pentagon in a video teleconference from Fallujah.
Sattler’s conclusion was far more optimistic than an assessment made shortly before the offensive by Marine intelligence officers, who said the insurgency would rebound if U.S. troop levels in the area were significantly reduced after the offensive.
Sattler cautioned, however, that insurgents remained a threat. A group attacked U.S. Marines and Iraqi government forces from a house inside Fallujah on Thursday, killing one Marine and one Iraqi soldier, Sattler said. One Marine and one Iraqi soldier also were wounded.
Sattler said the total U.S. death toll so far in the Fallujah offensive, which began Nov. 7, stands at 51, with about 425 wounded in action.
U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested 104 suspected guerrillas in an insurgent neighborhood in central Baghdad, including nine who are believed to have fled Fallujah, Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Khadim said. Most were Iraqis, although Syrians and non-Iraqi Arabs were among the group, he said.
Also, insurgents detonated a car bomb near a U.S. military convoy in Baghdad and a roadside bomb exploded at a job recruiting center in the northern city of Kirkuk in attacks that killed four people, police and officials said.
The Baghdad attack occurred near the Yarmouk police station as a U.S. armored vehicle drove by, police Capt. Ahmed Shihab said. Two people were killed and five wounded by the blast, he said. The U.S. military had no immediate information on casualties.
The Kirkuk attack killed two civilians and injured three others, said Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin with the Iraqi National Guard. Kirkuk is 180 miles north of Baghdad.
Insurgents also fired 10 mortar rounds at the provincial administration offices in the northern city of Mosul, wounding four of the governor’s guards, authorities said. Gov. Duraid Kashmoula was unhurt in the attack, spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Hastings said.
Initial reports said the rounds landed near a fuel truck, setting it ablaze, Hastings said. In a statement broadcast on local television, Kashmoula said the 10 rounds were lobbed from houses surrounding his offices, and he urged residents to help “prevent” similar attacks, threatening retaliation against the militants.
The rest of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city with more than 1 million residents, remained calm for a second day since the U.S.-led offensive operation began Tuesday to wrest control of the western part of the city from insurgents.
Last week, gunmen stormed police stations, bridges and political offices, overwhelming police forces who, in many places, failed to even put up a fight. Some officers also allegedly cooperated with insurgents.
The U.S. military said as many as 2,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops met “little resistance” during operations to re-secure police stations and key bridges in Mosul from the insurgents.
Iraqi authorities have acknowledged that al-Zarqawi, along with other Fallujah insurgent leaders, escaped from the rebel bastion west of Baghdad where he was based before American troops moved in.
Early Thursday, U.S. troops encountered intense rocket-propelled grenade attacks in Fallujah, said Lt. Col. Pete Newell, a commander in Task Force 22, 1st Infantry Division. The Americans returned heavy fire.
Afterward, troops walked through the area, which contained dozens of destroyed buildings and fox holes where they believed insurgents fled when the bombing in the area started.
Some of the papers found by U.S. soldiers in the building bore Saddam Hussein’s picture. Soldiers also found a ski mask and several bags of sodium nitrate, which can be used in making explosives, in other areas.
Several dead bodies were on the premises, and a giant crater was seen outside the severely damaged building. American forces also found a truck with a Texas Department of Transportation registration sticker inside the compound.
Relief organizations estimate that up to 250,000 Iraqis have fled Fallujah and could need help in nearby villages and in Baghdad, said Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Amman.
There are no independent figures on how many were killed in more than a week of fighting between U.S.-led forces and insurgents in Fallujah, home to about 300,000 people, she said.
About 10 major relief organizations held an emergency meeting in Amman on Thursday to plan how to help civilians affected by the fighting, Van Genderen Stort said.
While U.S. and Iraqi forces have retaken insurgent strongholds in Fallujah and Mosul, violence continues to erupt in Sunni Muslim-dominated areas of Iraq.
The Iraqi government, meanwhile, warned that Islamic clerics who incite violence will be considered to be “participating in terrorism,” and it said a number of them already have been arrested.
Thair al-Naqeeb, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, did not specify how many clerics have been detained.
In the past two weeks, a number of Sunni Muslim clerics in Baghdad and other cities – including several members of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars – have been arrested by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The group, considered the most powerful Sunni religious group in the country, had publicly criticized the U.S. assault against Fallujah and promised to boycott national elections in January in protest.
Associated Press Military Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.