- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

AQABA, Jordan — Terrorists firing a Katyusha rocket narrowly missed a U.S. amphibious assault ship docked at this Red Sea resort yesterday, but killed a Jordanian soldier in the most serious strike at the Navy since the USS Cole bombing nearly five years ago.

Two other rockets were launched toward nearby Israel without causing serious damage.

Jordanian security forces hunted for at least six Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi suspects. An al Qaeda-linked group that previously took responsibility for terror bombings in three Egyptian resorts said it had staged the attack here.

The string of attacks over 10 months has raised fears Islamist terrorists are opening a new arena of combat in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gulf of Aqaba. The area, bordered by Israel, Egypt and Jordan, is known for tourist resorts and Arab-Israeli peace talks.

In addition to striking U.S. targets, some extremist Muslims would like to topple the governments of Jordan and Egypt, which are longtime allies of Washington and also have peace treaties with Israel.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a militant group that claimed to be behind the bombings that killed at least 64 persons at Sharm el Sheik in July and 34 persons at two other Egyptian resorts last October, posted a statement on the Internet saying its fighters fired the rockets yesterday.

“A group of our holy warriors … targeted a gathering of American military ships docking in Aqaba port,” said the statement, which also threatened to bring down King Abdullah II of Jordan.

One rocket sailed over the bow of the USS Ashland at 8:44 a.m., said Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

The missile hit a nearby Jordanian military warehouse that U.S. forces use to store goods bound for Iraq, Jordanian officials said. The blast killed one Jordanian soldier and wounded another, the state-run Petra news agency reported. No Americans were injured.

Cmdr. Brown said the Ashland had moored Aug. 13 with the helicopter carrier USS Kearsarge at Aqaba’s port, south of the city, for joint exercises with Jordan’s military.

Both vessels left after the attack as a precaution, he said.

The vessels, which are based in Norfolk, carried elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C. It was unknown how many Marines and sailors were on board, but the Ashland can carry up to 400 sailors and 500 Marines and the Kearsarge 1,100 crew and 1,900 Marines.

The Bush administration condemned the attack.

“We are investigating the matter and will cooperate with local Jordanian officials on the attacks,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who was with the vacationing President Bush in Crawford, Texas.

It was the most serious attack involving a Navy vessel since October 2000, when al Qaeda-linked militants rammed a boat loaded with explosives into the destroyer Cole off Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

Also in the region, a Navy craft intercepted a small boat approaching an Iraqi oil platform in the Persian Gulf last year and the boat exploded, killing two sailors and a Coast Guardsman.

All three rockets fired yesterday — the one at the port and the two at Israel — appeared to have been fired from a building in a warehouse district in the hills on Aqaba’s northern edge, about five miles from the port, said a Jordanian intelligence official who showed journalists the site.

The two-story building has garages on the ground floor. On the second floor is a 3-by-3-foot window from which the attackers are thought to have fired the rockets.

The building was rented this week by four persons holding Egyptian and Iraqi nationalities, Petra reported.

Authorities scoured Aqaba and its vicinity for up to six suspects, including possibly Syrians, who were believed to have escaped in a vehicle with Kuwaiti license plates, a security official said in Amman, the capital.

Two Katyusha rockets — highly inaccurate unguided weapons used by Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas to attack northern Israel — were fired to the west toward Israel. One sailed across the border, hitting a road about 15 yards from the perimeter fence at the airport for the resort of Eilat, about nine miles from Aqaba.

The third rocket hit the backyard wall of Jordan’s Princess Haya Military Hospital.

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