Thursday, October 14, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister yesterday threatened military action against the rebel stronghold of Fallujah if residents don’t hand over Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi.

“If they do not turn in al-Zarqawi and his group, we will carry out operations in Fallujah,” Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told a meeting of the 100-member National Council. “We will not be lenient.”

Mr. Allawi’s warning came as government negotiators and Fallujah representatives tried to work out a deal to restore government control over the city, seen as the hardest militant-held region to crack.

The chief negotiator representing Fallujah said yesterday that the talks are in their final phase, but that differences remain over handing over rebels wanted by Iraqi and U.S. authorities on criminal charges. Many in the city view the Iraqis fighting in the insurgency as heroic “mujahideen,” or holy warriors.

Fallujah, in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland, is thought to be a stronghold of Zarqawi’s feared Tawhid and Jihad group, which has kidnapped and beheaded numerous foreigners and has carried out several bloody bombing attacks.

A videotape posted yesterday on an Islamic Web site showed militants linked to Zarqawi beheading two Iraqis who they accused of being intelligence officers.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, a suicide bomber plowed his vehicle into a U.S. convoy in the northern city of Mosul, killing two American soldiers and wounding five, according to the military.

Four other soldiers were killed in roadside bombings in the Baghdad area — three late Tuesday and one early yesterday, the U.S. military command said.

“I would like to reassert once more that the option of using force is a last resort for the government to settle the security situation,” Mr. Allawi told the National Council. “We shall remain prepared to deal positively with any initiative to disarm and enter the political process.”

But he warned of the likelihood of more bombings and other insurgent attacks.

“The more we crack down on terrorist havens, the more these strikes are going to increase,” he said.

The prime minister has long sought the capture of Zarqawi, who was thought to be the voice on an Islamist Web site that earlier this year carried a death threat against Mr. Allawi.

“As for you, Allawi — sorry, the democratically elected prime minister — we have found for you a useful poison and a sure sword,” said the taped voice.

“We do not care about these threats,” Mr. Allawi replied at the time.

“Abu Musab al-Zarqawi doesn’t threaten just me, but the entire country,” he said. “He is just a criminal who must be captured and tried. We are used to threats, and we know how to deal with them and how to win.”

Last night, Fallujah negotiator Hatem Karim challenged U.S. suspicions that Zarqawi is in the city and compared the terror mastermind to the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that Washington had insisted were in Iraq.

“We want to know what evidence there is of al-Zarqawi’s presence in Fallujah,” Mr. Karim said in an interview with Al Jazeera television.

“Al-Zarqawi has become like Iraqi WMD. … We hear this name, but it doesn’t exist. More than 15 to 20 houses were destroyed in Fallujah because they were accused of harboring al-Zarqawi or al-Zarqawi’s followers.”

He said Iraqi government officials had never raised the issue of Zarqawi during closed-door talks with the Fallujah delegates.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities have used a mix of diplomacy and force to try to regain control of rebel enclaves in time to hold nationwide elections in January. Troops swept into the militant stronghold of Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, earlier this month and have been carrying out smaller raids in recent days in other areas.

In Fallujah, a city of 300,000, U.S. forces have staged weeks of “precision strikes” aimed at buildings thought to be safe houses of Zarqawi’s network and its associates — even as negotiations have continued.

“Fallujah, of course, is an honest city, but it has been manipulated by a deviant bunch that wants to harm Iraq,” Mr. Allawi said.

He promised to show council members photographs and documents confirming terrorist activity in the city and other rebel strongholds.

“You can see for yourself the evil of these people and their ongoing fight to strike Iraq,” Mr. Allawi said, offering no details.

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