BAGHDAD — U.S. jets again targeted terror mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi, pounding one of his suspected hideouts in Fallujah yesterday in a strike that U.S. officials said killed up to 25 people. Iraqi leaders warned of more insurgent attacks after a wave of bloodshed blamed on Zarqawi.
It was the third air strike against Zarqawi’s network in Fallujah in a week, and it came as U.S. tanks exchanged fire with militants on the outskirts of the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say Zarqawi’s al Qaeda-linked movement was behind highly coordinated assaults Thursday against police stations and other buildings in six cities that killed around 100 people, including three U.S. soldiers. A claim of responsibility in Zarqawi’s name was posted on an Islamic Web site.
Some influential Muslim clerics who had been sharply critical of the American occupation spoke out yesterday against the bloody attacks.
“What sort of religion condones the killing of a Muslim by another Muslim?” asked Sheik Abdul-Ghafour al-Samarai, a member of the influential Sunni group the Association of Muslim Scholars, during a sermon in Baghdad’s Umm al-Qura mosque. “We must unite and be heedful of those who want to drive a wedge among us under the cover of Islam.”
Sheik Ahmed Hassan al-Taha said at Baghdad’s al-Azimiya mosque, Iraq’s foremost Sunni place of worship, that “it makes me sad to see that all the victims yesterday were Iraqis.”
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have long predicted that the insurgents would seek to derail the transfer of sovereignty, set for Wednesday.
After nightfall yesterday, six mortar shells exploded near the Green Zone headquarters district of the U.S. occupation, the U.S. military reported. There were no reports of casualties.
A bomb also went off outside the home of an Iraqi deputy defense minister, though the official and his family were unhurt, the military said.
U.S. officials estimated between 20 and 25 persons were killed in yesterday’s strike in Fallujah. Omar Majeed, 40, who lives in the Fallujah neighborhood that was attacked, said missiles struck a house that was vacated by the owners the previous day.
Al Jazeera television, in a report from Fallujah, said U.S. missiles struck a vacant house but the blast injured four persons next door.
CNN cited a U.S. official as saying Zarqawi may have been in the house and narrowly escaped the strike. The official said a man who may have been Zarqawi was thrown to the ground by the blast as he fled, then was helped up by colleagues and driven away in a convoy.
In Washington, several Pentagon officials with access to information about the air strike said they could not confirm the CNN account.
Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant, has claimed responsibility for kidnapping and beheading American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean hostage Kim Sun-il.
But a senior administration official acknowledged that intelligence about Zarqawi’s network is limited.