Thursday, August 21, 2003

Coalition military forces in Iraq captured a senior aide to Saddam Hussein yesterday as the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq said terrorism poses the “No. 1 threat” to U.S. forces there.

Iraqi Gen. Ali Hasan al-Majid, a relative of Saddam dubbed “Chemical Ali” for his role in poison-gas attacks that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988, was taken into custody by U.S. military forces and is being questioned, defense officials said.

The U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa announced the arrest. CentCom commander Army Gen. John Abizaid declined to provide details on the capture.

The capture could provide coalition forces with new information about Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction and about the organized resistance to the U.S. and allied troops in Iraq.

“Chemical Ali has been active in some ways and influencing people in and around him in a regional way, and I think I would leave it at that,” Gen. Abizaid said about the captured general’s role in fomenting opposition.

Al-Majid, a former Revolutionary Command Council member, was No. 5 — the king of spades — on the list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis from Saddam’s ousted regime.

Gen. Abizaid told reporters at the Pentagon that the threat from terrorists in Iraq is increasing and emanates from cells made up of former Ba’ath Party members and international terrorists.

Sophisticated terrorist attacks are “emerging as the No. 1 security threat,” Gen. Abizaid said. “We are applying a lot of time, energy and resources to identify it, understand it and deal with it.”

The Ansar-i-Islam terrorist group has moved from northern Iraq into Baghdad, he said. “It’s not good for us when they get established in an urban area, as you can well appreciate,” he said.

Other foreign fighters have entered Iraq from Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to U.S. officials. Officials believe there are several thousand former Ba’ath members behind recent attacks, along with an unknown number of foreign terrorists.

Terrorism also is “being fueled by extremists” located near Tikrit, Ar Ramadi, in western Iraq and in Baghdad, Gen. Abizaid said. “The threat from the terrorists is increasing,” he said. “And we will counter their actions appropriately.”

News of the capture of al-Majid contradicted earlier reports he had been killed in April, when U.S. forces bombed a house in southern Iraq where al-Majid was believed to be staying. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at that time that “we believe that the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end.”

Information obtained from captured Iraqis in June, however, indicated al-Majid had survived and was directing attacks on U.S. and allied forces. U.S. military officials said al-Majid was a key organizer of the Fedayeen Saddam guerrillas who fought advancing U.S. and British troops.

Al-Majid directed the 1988 Iraqi military campaign in northern Iraq against dissident Kurds, according to the nonprofit Human Rights Watch group. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the attacks, including bombings with deadly nerve gas.

Asked if terrorists in Iraq are networking across ideological lines, Gen. Abizaid said yesterday: “I wouldn’t say that they have become allies per se, but I believe that there are some indications of cooperation in specific areas.”

The four-star general said, “They are clearly a problem for us because of the sophistication of their attacks and because of what I would call their tactics to go after Iraqis.”

Terrorists are targeting Iraqis who are cooperating with U.S. and allied forces, and are attacking “soft targets,” like the Tuesday bombing of the unguarded U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel, which killed at least 23 persons, including the top U.N. official in Iraq. An earlier car bomb was set off at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad.

“They’re still seeking to inflict casualties upon the United States, and they will also seek to go after the infrastructure,” Gen. Abizaid said.

As the new Iraqi Governing Council is more successful in stabilizing the country and as coalition troops hunt down Ba’athists, the pro-Saddam resistance is “resorting to terrorism,” he said. “I think that’s an indication, to a certain extent, of some success of some of our tactics against others.”

The terrorists operating in Iraq “have determined that to kill innocent women and children, regardless of the cost, that they can be successful and break our will.”

Gen. Abizaid said he did not believe the foreign terrorists in Iraq are supported by foreign governments. However, “they are supported by misguided people who think that sending money to them is OK,” he said.

“Wherever we find the terrorists, we will find them, capture them, kill them, fight them, and we welcome the opportunity to do that because the region will not be safe and will not be prosperous until that threat is dealt with,” Gen. Abizaid said.

The foreign fighters in Iraq are “entering voluntarily,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “And to the extent they do come in, Gen. Abizaid and his people intend to capture or kill them.”

Of the capture of al-Majid, Mr. Rumsfeld said: “Each day more Iraqis are coming forward with information, leading coalition forces to be able to find weapons caches, hide-outs. And with their help, the coalition has now captured or killed 42 of the 55 most-wanted.”

In other developments yesterday, the Central Command said coalition forces captured weapons and stopped a bomb attack.

Army 4th Infantry Division troops captured three Iraqis along with guns, mortars and a rocket-propelled grenade near Abu Huraybish. Other U.S. troops arrested an Iraqi armed with an AK-47 rifle who was on a rooftop in Baghdad.

In a third incident, U.S. troops stopped a bombing attack by uncovering a bomb made from two artillery shells that had been wired to detonate in Baghdad. A grenade and mortar shell wired to blow up also was uncovered and disarmed in Baghdad.

U.S. Marines, acting on a tip from an Iraqi informant, also uncovered a weapons cache in Babil province that included eight grenade-launchers, 300 pounds of dynamite, blasting caps and wire. Marines also found 50 antitank guided missiles and multiple cluster bombs and rockets in the same area.

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