- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

Three top lieutenants of terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi, including his Baghdad operations chief, have been captured, spurring the interim Iraqi government to declare yesterday that Zarqawi’s capture is approaching.

“We are moving closer and closer to decimating and eliminating that threat from our country,” said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, in reference to Zarqawi and his terror network, called al Qaeda in Iraq.

The captures come on the heels of the Jan. 15 arrest of Zarqawi’s top assassin, Abu Omar al Kurdi. The Iraqis say Kurdi has provided a wealth of information on the Zarqawi network, and has admitted to making bombs and orchestrating most of the car bombings in Iraq.

The government said the three Zarqawi lieutenants were nabbed in late December and January. It identified one, Salah Suleiman al-Loheibi, as the head of Zarqawi’s Baghdad operation and said he had met with the terrorists in recent months. Zarqawi anointed Loheibi the “emir of Baghdad.” The other man was identified as Ali Hamad Yassin al-Issawi, a logistics officer who arranged meetings between Zarqawi and terrorists.

“He alleges to have met Zarqawi up close approximately 40 times in the past three months and arranged meetings for Zarqawi with members of his networks and other people planning and acting on terrorist operations,” Mr. Salih said. “We are getting a better, better picture of the Zarqawi network based on the arrests that we have made over the past few weeks.”

A third captured operative is Anab Mohammed Hamid al-Qas, an Iraqi who served as military adviser to various al Qaeda in Iraq cells.

Mr. Salih, speaking from Baghdad to a Pentagon press conference, said that in recent months the coalition has captured “at least a dozen senior Zarqawi associates” and more than 20 lower-level ones.

The interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has delayed announcing the captures for days or weeks. U.S. officials say part of the reason is that the captives are providing “actionable intelligence” on Zarqawi operations. The government wants to act on the information before the enemy learns of the capture and changes operations and locations; a second reason is that such announcements, drawn out over days, hammer home a message that the government is systematically dismantling Zarqawi’s network of foreign jihadists and their Iraqi allies.

The Jordanian-born Zarqawi at one time worked out of the western city of Fallujah. He is believed to have slipped through a loose cordon around the terrorist-held city late last summer. When soldiers and Marines took the city by force in November, Zarqawi was not there. U.S. officials believe he moves frequently from town to town, perhaps in various disguises.

The United States estimated there were about 20,000 senior leaders in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party before the March 2003 invasion. Some fled the country and are now directing arms and money to the insurgency from Syria and other countries.

“We certainly know of the existence of many senior leaders from the former regime, beyond the borders of Iraq, financing terrorist operations inside Iraq and directing terrorist operations inside Iraq,” Mr. Salih said.

In fact, some Saddam loyalists have joined what Mr. Salih called a “lethal alliance” with Zarqawi’s jihadists.

In all, the coalition says it has rounded up more than 2,000 insurgents this month. But the Zarqawi-Ba’athist axis remains a potent force able to unleash deadly violence.

“We cannot underestimate the threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliate organizations, including Zarqawi,” the deputy prime minister said. “We are talking about a bunch of murderers, determined, resourceful and have no qualms about human life. … We hope that we have been able to erode their capability to inflict damage upon the Iraqi people.”

Concerning tomorrow’s election, Mr. Salih talked of tough security measures that went into effect last night. The borders were sealed and a curfew was imposed. No civilians, including licensed owners, will be allowed to carry guns.

“This will be a turning point in the history of Iraq,” he said. “My hope, this will be the catalyst for changing the course of history for the people of Iraq and turning our country from the country of mass graves and tyranny to the country of democracy, peace and security.”

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