- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

BAGHDAD — Sunni Arabs are ready to end their boycott of talks to form a new Iraqi government if rival Shi’ites return mosques seized in last week’s sectarian attacks and meet other unspecified demands, a top Sunni figure said yesterday.

That prompted the State Department to praise the Sunni leadership for “looking to get back into the game, full strength.”

“That’s to be welcomed,” deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

Iraqi security forces yesterday announced the capture of a senior al Qaeda in Iraq figure, identified as Abou al-Farouq, a Syrian who financed and coordinated groups working for Iraq’s most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Members of the Interior Ministry’s Wolf Brigade captured al-Farouq with five other followers of Zarqawi near Bakr, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, said an Interior Ministry officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Sunnis boycotted the talks Thursday after the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra sparked attacks against Sunni mosques in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere. The walkout and Sunni-Shi’ite clashes threatened U.S. plans to establish a unity government capable of luring Sunnis away from the insurgency and raised doubts about U.S. plans to begin withdrawing some of its 138,000 troops this year.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, whose Iraqi Accordance Front spearheaded the Sunni boycott, said the Sunnis have not decided to return to the talks but are “intent on participating” in a new government.

“The situation is tense, and within the next two days we expect the situation to improve, and then we will have talks,” he said. “We haven’t ended our suspension completely, but we are on the way to end it.”

Meanwhile, Iraq’s interior minister told ABC News that he thinks American journalist Jill Carroll is alive and will be released, even though the Sunday deadline set by her kidnappers had passed. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr also said he thought the 28-year-old journalist was “still alive.”

Miss Carroll, a freelancer working for the Christian Science Monitor, was abducted Jan. 7 in Baghdad and was last seen on a videotape broadcast Feb. 10 by a Kuwaiti television station, Al-Rai. The station said the kidnappers threatened to kill Miss Carroll unless the United States met unspecified demands by Sunday.

Baghdad was generally peaceful yesterday, the first day without extended curfews or a ban on private vehicles since the crisis erupted. Violence across Iraq killed 36 persons yesterday, but sectarian clashes declined sharply since the bloodletting after the destruction of the revered shrine, bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

“That crisis is over,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.

Saddam Hussein has ended a hunger strike he began earlier this month to protest the conduct of his trial, his chief attorney said yesterday. The ousted Iraqi leader is due back in court today.

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