Fugitive al Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and members of his organization may be hiding in the Sunni stronghold city of Fallujah, according to a senior Pentagon official.
The official said intelligence also suggests al-Zarqawi intends to launch more attacks with the approach of June 30 — when sovereignty is officially returned to Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi is a Jordanian-born Islamic militant who U.S. officials say has close ties to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
U.S. sources say al-Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on U.S. troops, Iraqi civilians and others, including the August 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
They also blame him for the videotaped beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg in May, and the U.S. government has put a $10 million price on his head.
Fallujah is the city west of Baghdad where the killing and dismemberment of four American contractors on March 31 prompted a U.S. military operation there the following month.
The senior Pentagon official said the intelligence about al-Zarqawi has come to light in the past week. It had previously been believed al-Zarqawi was in the Fallujah region, but the official said that there is fresh information.
The official cautioned, however, that the information is not specific enough to allow a military operation to be launched to try to find al-Zarqawi.
President Bush used al-Zarqawi as an example Tuesday to back his contention that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda.
Word of the al-Zarqawi intelligence came as three U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday in a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Balad, the Coalition Press Information Center said.
A coalition statement said at least 23 other people were injured in the attack.
Wednesday’s attack brings the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war to 837, according to U.S. military reports. Of those, 617 were killed in hostile actions.
President Bush praised U.S. troops Wednesday for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but warned that “many challenges are yet to come” as the official end of the occupation of Iraq looms.
“We can expect more attacks in the coming few weeks — more car bombs, more suiciders, more attempts on the lives of Iraqi officials,” Bush said. “But our coalition is standing firm. The new Iraq’s leaders are not intimidated. I will not yield, and neither will the leaders of Iraq.” (Full story)
Violence in Kirkuk
In Kirkuk, Ghazi al-Talabani, the Northern Oil Company security chief, was killed and his driver was wounded as he left his home for work, a police source said.
The victim was the cousin of Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and a member of the disbanded Iraqi Governing Council.
Over the weekend, three other prominent residents of Kirkuk were killed in targeted attacks, including a well-known Kurdish cleric, a district mayor who also served as a police officer and the father of Kirkuk’s police chief.
Also Wednesday south of Baghdad, an Iraqi was killed in an attack on a police station in Diwaniya.
Insurgents have been focusing their attacks on participants in the new Iraqi government in advance of the June 30 handover.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor has said that while “protection of these officials is a high priority … we will not be able to protect every single one of them.”
“We either provide security personnel or we provide training and funding,” he said.
Despite the continuing violence, a United Nations official said preparations for the country’s first elections since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein are on schedule.
Iraqis are to go to the ballot box by the end of January to elect a 275-seat National Assembly, a Kurdistan National Assembly and provincial officials. The Transitional National Assembly will draft a permanent constitution, leading to a constitutionally elected government by the end of December 2005.
Insurgent attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure have halted Iraq’s oil exports, a grim development that threatens the country’s rebuilding efforts.
On Tuesday, saboteurs attacked oil targets in the northern and southern parts of the country.
The key southern pipeline in the Persian Gulf was attacked, knocking out export of oil through Iraq’s two offshore terminals. There were reports that the same key pipeline was hit again Wednesday.
A coalition official said the valves were closed on the southern line Tuesday night and pumping was stopped.
But up to half the line is expected to be operational sometime Wednesday, pumping nearly 900,000 barrels per day. The normal export flow from the south is 1.8 million barrels.
One pipeline that provides crude oil for refinement to the northern city of Kirkuk was attacked Tuesday, the Oil Ministry said.
The coalition said the average production of 250,000 barrels per day for export in the north had dropped to zero.
While coalition officials expect a restoration of complete capacity in days, Iraqis and the coalition regard the sabotage as ominous because oil revenues are expected to pay for reconstruction.
Last week, there were several pipeline strikes over a three-day period, part of a trend that Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said is causing severe disruption in the country’s power grid and economy.
Six Iraqis, including one police officer, were killed Wednesday in a roadside bombing in Ramadi, a U.S. Marine spokesman said. Six members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps were detained in connection with the incident. No coalition forces were injured or killed.
Criminal murder charges are expected to be filed against a U.S. Army captain in connection with the shooting death of a man, Pentagon officials said Wednesday. The charges stem from a May 21 incident in which U.S. forces engaged in a shootout near Kufa with a motorcade of cars believed to contain fighters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. The driver of one car was seriously injured, and a passenger was less seriously wounded. According to officials, U.S. military reports indicated the injured driver was then fatally shot at close range by a U.S. soldier.
Radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has told militia members loyal to him to leave Najaf if they are not from that south-central city. The militia, known as the Mehdi Army, had clashed with coalition forces for weeks in Najaf, nearby Kufa and in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. A tentative truce was reached earlier this month.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and others on Wednesday released a letter from 300 law professors, calling for an investigation into alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel.