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Official: Fallujah strike just missed al-Zarqawi

Explosions, mortar attacks rock Baghdad

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- A coalition strike Friday in Fallujah might have come close to killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born Islamic militant believed to have ties to al Qaeda, a senior Defense Department official said.

The official said U.S. warplanes targeted a suspected safe house.

As they began to drop 500-pound bombs on the house, a convoy of cars pulled up to the home. A man got out of a car as the bombs fell and was thrown to the ground by a blast. According to the official, he was hustled back into the car, clearly alive, and driven away.

The official said al-Zarqawi is thought to be the only person in that network of terrorist insurgents who travels with such a large security detail.

The man they saw fall to the ground "wasn't wearing a name tag," but they believe it may have been al-Zarqawi.

The strike killed 20 to 25 people, a senior coalition official said.

It was the third such U.S. airstrike in a week. On Saturday and Tuesday, so-called safe houses in Fallujah allegedly linked to the al-Zarqawi network were targeted by U.S. forces, and about 38 people were killed.

There is fresh intelligence that al-Zarqawi uses Fallujah as a base of operations, the official said.

The official said there were "eyes on the target" while the airstrike was conducted. That could mean an unmanned Predator drone aircraft was flying overhead, observing the convoy.

Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the target was "based on confirmations of actionable intelligence provided by both Iraqi and coalition intelligence sources."

U.S. officials say al-Zarqawi has close ties to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

They also blame him for the videotaped beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg in May, and a group linked to him claimed responsibility for beheading South Korean citizen Kim Sun-il this week.

Meanwhile, two mortar attacks and two explosions pierced the night in Baghdad late Friday and early Saturday, a coalition military official said.

No injuries or major damage were reported, according to coalition spokesman Capt. Patrick Swan.

At about 9 p.m. Friday, an improvised explosive device blew up in eastern Baghdad, Swan said.

Mortar rounds were fired at a road in western Baghdad near Abu Ghraib prison about 10 p.m., Swan said. A half-hour later, a bomb exploded at the home of Iraq's deputy minister of defense. Swan said Iraqi police immediately secured the area, and the minister and his family were reported uninjured.

Just after midnight Saturday, six mortar shells struck the road near the Green Zone, where the U.S.-led coalition is headquartered. A quick-reaction force responded to the scene.

Earlier Friday, a police officer died and another was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near a police car in western Baghdad.

Iraq tightened security ahead of next week's handover of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqi interim government, and two top Iraqi ministers vowed to stand firm against the escalating insurgency.

Fighting continued in Fallujah on Friday. At least seven Iraqis were killed and about 54 others were wounded, according to a Health Ministry official.

Video from the city, shot Friday morning, showed rising smoke as the sound of small-arms fire and explosions could be heard. Heavily armed masked insurgents -- some brandishing rocket launchers -- patrolled the streets, aiming their weapons at unseen targets.

More violence could mean more troops

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate on Thursday, Gen. George Casey -- who will soon take over as the commander of coalition forces -- said U.S. Central Command is working on contingency planning in case increased violence persists in Iraq after the handover.

"That is CentCom doing some prudent planning in the event the security situation changes," he said. "But it is not a request for forces or even an informal request for forces."

As many as 15,000 troops could be deployed to Iraq if the insurgency continues to intensify, CNN has learned. About 140,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq.

At least 96 people -- 93 Iraqis and three U.S. troops -- were killed in seemingly coordinated insurgent attacks in five Iraqi cities Thursday. Iraqi police and health officials said 331 people were wounded in the attacks.

Hours after the strikes, the military wing of the Unification and Jihad, a group linked to al-Zarqawi, issued a statement on a Web site that claimed responsibility for attacking five police stations in Mosul, two locations in Baqubah, one in Ramadi and another in Baghdad. (Map)

Other developments

  • An attorney for Spc. Sabrina Harman, one of the soldiers accused in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal told the investigative officer Friday that the Army -- not his client -- "should take the blame." Frank Spinner, speaking after an Article 32 hearing, similar to a grand jury, said Harman "was caught in a very difficult situation as a young soldier." She is accused of conspiracy to maltreat subordinates and dereliction of duty, among other charges. (Full story)
  • A special U.N. envoy to Iraq will be named within a week, Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced Friday. The U.N. representative, to be based in Baghdad, will succeed Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was among 17 people killed in the bombing of the organization's headquarters in Iraq last August.
  • An imam allied with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Friday that al-Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, has stopped its military operations in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. Before his sermon at Friday prayers in Baghdad, Sheikh Ra'id Al-Kadhimi read a statement from the militia's leadership that said the stoppage came "for the sake of the Iraqi people and because these are sensitive times for our people."
  • The Army said Friday it has replaced Maj. Gen. George Fay with a more senior officer to head the investigation into alleged misconduct by personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones, deputy commanding general with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, will lead the inquiry. The action was necessary because of the need to interview Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez as part of the probe. Sanchez, who wears three stars, outranks Fay.
  • CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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