Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Members of Iraq’s U.S.-approved Governing Council received a chilling death threat from hooded terrorists on video yesterday, the latest in a series of warnings that illustrate growing aggressiveness among anticoalition cells in Iraq.

Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV aired the warning from masked followers of Islamic groups in Iraq who threatened members of the Iraqi Governing Council and Iraqis who work with U.S. forces.

“We’ll kill them first, before we kill the Americans,” said a masked man, saying he spoke for the Iraqi Liberation Organization, the Muslim Youth and Islamic Jihad.

Typed threats in Arabic and English were delivered to at least one U.S. organization in Baghdad on Sunday, less than a week after a blast that killed 23 persons at the U.N. compound in Baghdad.

“There is an increase in threats and an increase in attacks,” said Hamid al-Hayati, a London-based spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shi’ite group in Iraq.

“It could be because of Saddam’s loyalists organizing themselves or of cooperation between [them] and other extremist groups coming in from other countries,” he said.

Meanwhile, two dozen Iraqi suspects were swept up near Baqouba, 42 miles north of Baghdad, yesterday in “Operation Ivy Needle,” a campaign initiated by the 4th Infantry Division.

Hundreds of troops, backed by helicopters, tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, chased a convicted murderer and gangster named Lateef Hamed al-Kubaishat — known as Lateef by U.S. forces, said Col. David Hogg, commander of the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.

Lateef escaped capture, but the military said it caught seven men it was seeking and seized arms. A later raid on the home of a gunrunner netted three men after troops surrounded the house. The three suspects tried to flee, with one firing a heavy machine gun, but he was wounded in the leg.

“Their primary focus is probably criminal activity, but they have attacked coalition forces through direct and indirect means,” Col. Hogg said. “As long as [Lateef] is in place, we will not be able to establish the conditions for the Iraqi police to establish law and order in the area.”

Mr. al-Hayati warned that soft targets such as embassies, clerics and civilians, including Iraqis cooperating with coalition forces, could come under increasing fire.

“U.S. contract workers could be easy targets. They are not armed, so it would be easy to target them,” he added.

The number of American troops killed in postwar Iraq has surpassed the toll of those killed in major combat, reaching 140 with the deaths of a soldier in a roadside bombing and another in a traffic accident.

The total number of U.S. soldiers killed since the war began March 19 is 278.

One U.S. security specialist, with previous experience in East Timor and Kosovo and now based in Baghdad, downplayed the level of threats and the effect of the recent attacks, but cautioned that the profile of violence could change.

“Compared to the size of what’s happening over there, those things are not disrupting much,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday during a short visit to Washington.

“If it becomes any better organized, then you will see a serious escalation, you will see better weaponry, different types of attacks. If that does not occur, and it continues to be sporadic, I would say it is a last-ditch effort by a desperate group of people,” he said.

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