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U.S. links Zarqawi to Iraq attacks

Iraqis remove destroyed cars Thursday from the site of an explosion near the Shaheen Hotel.
Iraqis remove destroyed cars Thursday from the site of an explosion near the Shaheen Hotel.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials said Thursday there is mounting evidence fugitive terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was involved in some of last year's major attacks in Iraq -- against Italian forces, U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.

The first attack killed 16 Italian soldiers, two Italian civilians and nine Iraqis in Nasiriya. More than 20 people, including United Nations envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed in the headquarters bombing. The mosque attack in Najaf killed 126 people, including a Shiite spiritual leader.

Zarqawi, who is suspected of masterminding the slaying of an American diplomat in Amman, Jordan, is believed to have moved into Iraq to plan the attacks. Although not a member of al Qaeda, he is affiliated with the terrorist organization, officials say.

In a speech to the United Nations February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell named Zarqawi's presence in northern Iraq as evidence of a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network."

The United States recently captured Hasan Ghul, a key al Qaeda member, as he was trying to enter Iraq. Officials say Ghul was planning to meet with Zarqawi. Ghul is reportedly talking to his interrogators and providing useful information.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez discussed the arrest of Ghul, who was apprehended January 22 in Iraq by friendly foreign forces and turned over to U.S. intelligence personnel, with reporters.

"The capture of Ghul is pretty strong proof that al Qaeda is trying to gain a foothold here to continue their murderous campaigns," Sanchez said. "Ghul's capture is great news for the Iraqis, for the coalition and for the international community's war against terrorism."

Sanchez, the head of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said Ghul was a courier reporting directly to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was arrested in Pakistan last year and is believed to be an organizer of the September 11 attacks.

Sanchez said al Qaeda "tactics, their techniques and their procedures have been here for a while," at least dating back to the November bombing on the Italian military headquarters in Nasiriya, Iraq.

"With the Hasan Ghul arrest, we know that there are some couriers" for al Qaeda in the country, Sanchez said. "We believe there are some fundamentalist terrorist linkages with the former regime at the tactical level. We believe there are efforts to strengthen those linkages."

Sanchez would not say whether al Qaeda has cells in Iraq, but said suspects in failed suicide bombing attacks were not Iraqis.

Ongoing assaults

A roadside bomb exploded Thursday morning northeast of Baghdad, wounding four members of an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps patrol, a U.S. military official said.

No coalition forces were hurt in the attack in Baqubah, a town about 32 miles (51 kilometers) northeast of the Iraqi capital, according to the U.S.-led coalition.

Baqubah is in the restive "Sunni Triangle" area -- a region north and west of Baghdad known as a hotbed of guerrilla insurgency.

The latest bombings punctuate a violent week in the Sunni Triangle.

Six U.S. soldiers, four Iraqi police officers, two CNN employees and an Iraqi civilian were killed Tuesday in five attacks throughout the country. Coalition forces also killed three armed insurgents during a raid. (Full story)

Other developments

• The U.S. Army has won approval from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to temporarily add 30,000 troops above its congressionally approved limit of 482,000, Pentagon officials said Thursday. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told Congress Wednesday the temporary increase is expected to last about four years. (Full story)

• The Iraq Governing Council has asked Iraqi authorities to investigate allegations there is an illegal prison being run by a top Shiite cleric, according to Safaa Al-Rasool, a deputy of Governing Council member Mowaffak al-Rubaie. Iraq allows various Shiite clerics to have a court system based on their teachings, but those groups are not authorized to operate prisons. (Full story)


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