BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi authorities yesterday released the chief negotiator for Fallujah after three days of captivity in a failed bid to restart talks that could avoid a military assault on the terrorist hotbed west of Baghdad.
The negotiator, Sheik Khaled al-Jumeili, said the peace talks will remain suspended as a protest against his detention by U.S. troops, who accused him of representing the militants.
Also yesterday, car bombers struck Baghdad and Mosul, raising the two-day death toll from the weapons to 12, and the interim Iraqi government extended an arms turn-in program in Baghdad’s Sadr City until Thursday, and said other Iraqi cities would be included in the weapons buyback program.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he thought the wave of terror attacks in Iraq was aimed at derailing President Bush’s chances of re-election, in what was widely seen as an attempt to help Mr. Bush.
Sheik al-Jumeili told the Associated Press that he had been released yesterday from U.S. and Iraqi custody after being detained Friday when talks broke down over the city’s rejection of a demand by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to turn over terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
Speaking separately to a reporter from Al Arabiya satellite television station, he said: “The fact is that I’m negotiating on behalf of Fallujah people — civilians, kids, women — who have no power but through being represented by somebody. Since the situation has got up to this, each can go wherever they want and we don’t need to talk about negotiations.”
Zarqawi’s group Tawhid and Jihad has claimed responsibility for numerous beheadings and suicide bombings, including two attacks on Baghdad’s green zone last week that killed six, including four U.S. civilians.
Witnesses said Sheik al-Jumeili was picked up with three other men after leaving a mosque following prayers in a village about 10 miles south of Fallujah.
The cleric said he was taken to a Marine base outside Fallujah and then by helicopter to another location. During his detention, Sheik al-Jumeili said he was treated well by the Americans and was not handcuffed or blindfolded like his companions. The other three men have not been released, he said.
The Interior Ministry said Sheik al-Jumeili was being released on the orders of Mr. Allawi, who last week issued a stern warning that the city must turn over Zarqawi or face a military attack.
But yesterday Mr. Allawi told the National Council that an “olive branch” was still extended to Fallujah in order to find a peaceful resolution. However, he said, “We shall not be lenient in regard to the question of maintaining security and granting security to every Iraqi.”
U.S. forces have staged days of air and ground assaults in Fallujah, targeting sites believed to be used by Zarqawi associates. The Americans also have asked Britain to shift some 650 crack troops to the Baghdad area, freeing U.S. Marines for the anticipated Fallujah campaign.
The latest U.S. assault began Thursday after Fallujah clerics rejected the “impossible” demand to turn over the terrorist leader, insisting that Zarqawi was not in the city. Fallujah fell under control of radical clerics and their armed mujahideen fighters after U.S. Marines lifted a three-week siege of the city in April.
The U.S. military meanwhile announced that five Iraqis were killed and 15 wounded when a car bomb detonated on a bridge in Mosul on Sunday morning. The blast occurred when the car-bomber collided with another car, setting off a giant blaze that damaged several other vehicles. Another car bomber yesterday hit a civilian convoy, killing one and wounding four others.
In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded late Sunday near a police patrol in the Jadiriyah district, killing six persons, including three police officers, and wounding 26 others. The blast hit a cafe near the Australian Embassy, although there were no Australian casualties.
The U.S. military also announced the crash of two helicopters on Saturday, raising the American death toll in the Iraq war to 1,100, comprising 1,097 service members and three civilians — two working for the Army and one working for the Air Force. The Associated Press count includes accidental and noncombat deaths.
Mr. Putin, speaking to reporters after a summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, said, “I consider the activities of terrorists in Iraq are not as much aimed at coalition forces but more personally against President Bush.”
“International terrorism has as its goal to prevent the election of President Bush to a second term,” he said. “If they achieve that goal, then that will give international terrorism a new impulse and extra power.”
In Baghdad, Mr. Allawi said a cash-for-weapons program for followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City and other locations would be extended until Thursday, with plans for a nationwide program.
“Our forces are now ready to fight terrorists and there’s no justification for people to keep weapons at home,” he said.
Iraqi officials hope Fallujah leaders also can be persuaded to negotiate a weapons buyback.