Wednesday, March 3, 2004

The general in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East said yesterday that al Qaeda terrorists have linked up with Saddam Hussein’s former intelligence operatives in conducting sophisticated and deadly terrorist attacks.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the 200,000 troops of the U.S. Central Command, also said the terrorist attacks in Iraq on Tuesday were carried out by six suicide bombers and represent an escalation of extremist violence. The simultaneous blasts killed an estimated 117 to 271 persons and wounded more than 500.

The six detonations minutes apart “is the most we’ve seen on any single day,” Gen. Abizaid told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday.

U.S. special operations commandos raided a group of terrorists linked to known operative Abu Musab Zarqawi on Monday night, he said. The raid “probably prevented even greater carnage,” he said.

Despite the progress in stabilizing Iraq, terrorists are established in the country, Gen. Abizaid said.

“They must be defeated,” he said. “Our intelligence systems must continue to work very, very hard to identify them, precisely target them and kill them, and we will do that in conjunction with the Iraqis.”

The general also said intelligence indicated that the Tuesday attacks were planned as part of a strategy to trigger a civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. The terrorists also have targeted prominent Shi’ite leaders.

“The level of organization and the desire to cause casualties among innocent worshippers is a clear hallmark of the Zarqawi network, and we have intelligence that ties Zarqawi to this attack,” he said.

Intelligence reports also indicate that “there is some linkage between Zarqawi and the former regime elements, specifically the Iraqi Intelligence Service,” he said.

“We are concerned to see a terrorist group come into close coordination with former Iraqi Intelligence Service people, because that creates an opportunity for the enemy of cooperation that can have a lot of danger for the force,” Gen. Abizaid said.

He said the attacks show that Zarqawi and his allies such as al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri “are the enemies of Islam” and are trying to trigger a civil war in Iraq.

“They have killed more Muslims in the past month than anybody could ever imagine, for no vision other than to cause destruction and to cause civil war to take place in Iraq,” he said.

Gen. Abizaid warned that terrorists are seeking the “Talibanization of the Middle East.”

“This is an important fight,” the four-star general said. “It’s a fight about extremism versus moderation. It’s a fight about the ideas of free men versus those who would enslave people.”

Peter Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, who testified with Gen. Abizaid, said the war on terrorism is “a struggle between moderates in the Muslim world … against a minority of extremists.”

On the search for bin Laden, Gen. Abizaid said both bin Laden and al-Zawahri are “somewhere in Pakistan or somewhere in Afghanistan.” He added that Pakistani military forces are increasing operations on the border area and U.S. forces are working on the Afghanistan side in the hunt.

“We are conducting offensive operations now in areas that we think are high payoff,” he said.

Asked about links between Iraq and the September 11 attacks, Mr. Rodman said documents are being translated that may shed light on the ties.

“We have put out information. It does not demonstrate a connection with 9/11, but there is already, I think, significant evidence that there’s a record of exchanges and contacts and some degree of cooperation between the Iraqis and al Qaeda,” he said.

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