BAGHDAD, Iraq – A group of armed, masked Iraqi men threatened Tuesday to kill Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi if he did not immediately leave the country, accusing him of murdering innocent Iraqis and defiling the Muslim religion.
The threats revealed the deep anger many Iraqis, including insurgent groups, feel toward foreign fighters, whom many consider as illegitimate a presence here as the 160,000 U.S. and other coalition troops.
In a videotape sent to the al-Arabiya television station, a group calling itself the “Salvation Movement,” questioned how al-Zarqawi could use Islam to justify the killing of innocent civilians, the targeting of government officials and the kidnapping and beheading of foreigners.
“He must leave Iraq immediately, he and his followers and everyone who gives shelter to him and his criminal actions,” said a man on the video.
The video marked the first time that an Iraqi group made such a public threat against al-Zarqawi.
It was issued a day after U.S.-led coalition forces, who have been targeting al-Zarqawi, launched an air strike in the restive city of Fallujah on a suspected safe house used by his followers. The attack killed 15 people, witnesses said.
In the video, three men, their faces covered with Arab headscarves, were flanked by rocket propelled grenades and an Iraqi flag. The man speaking had a clear Iraqi accent.
“We swear to Allah that we have started preparing … to capture him and his allies or kill them and present them as gift to our people.” the man said. “This is the last warning. If you don’t stop, we will do to you what the coalition forces have failed to do.”
Al-Zarqawi, said to be connected to al-Qaida, is believed to be behind a series of coordinated attacks on police and security forces that killed 100 people only days before U.S. forces handed over power to an Iraqi interim government.
His followers have also claimed responsibility for the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean translator Kim Sun-il.
The attacks have led to fears that religious fanatics and Saddam loyalists may be joining forces to fight both the multinational force and the new Iraqi government, increasing violence that has wracked the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein 14 months ago.
The military announced Tuesday that three U.S. Marines assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed while on duty in Western Iraq. Two died in action Monday in Anbar province, while a third died of his wounds later Monday.
In the town of Latifiya, 25 miles south of Baghdad, two police officers were seriously injured Tuesday when gunmen opened fire on their patrol car before fleeing, said police Lt. Hazim Abdul-Kadhim.
In the town of Yayieji, about 20 miles southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, a roadside bomb exploded, just missing an Iraqi police car, but severely injuring a bystander, according to Col. Sarhat Qadir from the Kirkuk police force.
Four explosions were heard outside Fallujah on Tuesday, but the nature of the blasts was not known.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military said Tuesday that troops had fired on a car that failed to heed warnings to stop at a checkpoint, killing one child and wounding a second.
NATO officials met Tuesday with Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan as part of a fact-finding mission to carve out a possible future role for the alliance in the country.
“The purpose of this visit is to find out what needs to be done and present that in a report, and the political decision has to be taken in Brussels,” said U.S. Adm. Greg Johnson, head of the delegation that included British and Italian military officials.
The interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has been trying to find a way to stem violence.
On Monday, U.S forces dropped two tons of bombs on a purported militant safe house in Fallujah, killing 15 members of one family, according to witnesses, and turning the building into a 30-foot-deep pit of sand and rubble.
The Fallujah attack was the fifth airstrike in the past two weeks in the area where the U.S. military says al-Zarqawi’s network has safe houses.
Rescue workers in Fallujah picked up body parts after the U.S. airstrike, witnesses said. Video from Associated Press Television News showed the explosion had thrown bricks blocks away. Blood was splashed on a nearby wall.
Men gathered at the pit where the house had been and pulled out clothes, including a young child’s shirt, from the rubble.
“Is this acceptable to the Iraqi government?” asked an angry man at the scene, who declined to identify himself. “Where are human rights?”
Yasser Abed, 17, said 15 members of his family, including 12 children, were killed in the air strike. Abed, his father and a brother were out of the house at the time of the attack, he said. Hospital officials said at least 10 people were killed. Previous U.S. air strikes in Fallujah have killed dozens.
The military said it had dropped four 500-pound bombs and two 1,000-pound bombs. The attack used guided weapons and underscored the resolve of coalition and Iraqi forces “to jointly destroy terrorist networks within Iraq,” the military said.
Allawi issued an unprecedented statement saying his government provided intelligence for the location of the al-Zarqawi safe house so the strike could “terminate those terrorists, whose booby-trapped cars and explosive belts have harvested the souls of innocent Iraqis without discrimination, destroying Iraqi schools, hospitals and police stations.”
Allawi appealed to all Iraqis to report the activities of insurgents.
“The sovereign Iraqi people and our international partners are adamant that we will put an end to terrorism and chase those corrupt terrorists and will uproot them one by one,” he said in the statement.