- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

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.

“I don’t think we have, really, any idea how broad it is,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He added that Zarqawi likely has “some kind of command and control” role.

Coalition officials believe Fallujah has emerged as a center of the insurgency and Islamic extremism since the U.S. Marines abandoned their siege of the city in late April and handed over security to an Iraqi force, the Fallujah Brigade.

Handing over security to the brigade is widely seen now as a failure because control has fallen into the hands of hard-line Muslim clerics and their fanatical followers.

The Washington Times, quoting Fallujah residents, reported yesterday that foreign insurgents have enforced strict Islamic law in the Sunni-majority city, banning alcohol and music and have killed more than a dozen people suspected of collaborating with U.S. forces.

U.S. commanders believe Zarqawi is planning a wave of car bombings in Baghdad, said Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade.

New U.S. military checkpoints have been set up around the city of 5 million people, and large numbers of Iraqi National Guard troops in combat fatigues and body armor were deployed into the streets and main squares yesterday.

“We expect there will be more attacks,” Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said.

Violence across the country diminished yesterday from the bloodshed of the previous day. One Iraqi policeman was killed and another wounded by a roadside bomb that exploded in a Baghdad residential district.

In the northern city of Mosul, fearful residents largely kept off the streets, after four car bombs Thursday killed nearly 50 people.

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said the interim government was considering drastic measures to combat the violence, including declaring martial law or a state of emergency in some areas. He said no decision had been reached.

“It’s the people who want us to take stronger measures,” Mr. Shaalan said. “We have to be patient. Building democracy requires patience.”

Iraq’s interim vice president warned that martial law, however undesirable, may be needed.

“In normal situations, there is clearly no need for that,” said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi’ite and member of the Islamic Dawa Party. “But in cases of excess challenges, emergency laws have their place.”

Any emergency laws would fall within a “democratic framework that respects the rights of Iraqis,” he said.

It’s not clear whether U.S. officials support martial law. The U.S. military, with 130,000 troops in Iraq, has the primary security role even after the transfer of sovereignty, under a U.N. Security Council resolution approved this month.

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