Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US jets raid `al-Zarqawi safe house'

MISSED At least 25 people, but not the main target, were killed in an attack on what US forces claim was a headquarters for the `terrorist mastermind'

AP , BAGHDAD, IRAQ

A masked Iraqi insurgent, aims his machine gun during clashes with US forces in the restive town of Falluja. The US military said that warplanes bombed a suspected guerrilla safe house in Iraq on Friday, stepping up a hunt for Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who has been blamed by Washington for a series of deadly attacks.

PHOTO: REUTERS

US jets targeted terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pounding one of his suspected hideouts Friday in Fallujah in a strike that US officials said killed up to 25 people. Iraqi leaders warned of more insurgent attacks after a wave of bloodshed blamed on al-Zarqawi.

Several strong explosions were heard early yesterday in central Baghdad but the origin was unclear.

Meanwhile, some influential Muslim clerics who had been sharply critical of the American occupation spoke out Friday against the bloody attacks of the previous day, which killed more than 100 people, most of them Iraqis. Three American soldiers were among the dead.

"What sort of religion condones the killing of a Muslim by another Muslim?" asked Sheik Abdul-Ghafour al-Samarai, a member of the influential Sunni group the Association of Muslim Scholars, during a sermon in Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque. "We must unite and be heedful of those who want to drive a wedge among us under the cover of Islam."

Sheik Ahmed Hassan al-Taha said at Baghdad's al-Azimiya mosque, Iraq's foremost Sunni place of worship, that "it makes me sad to see that all the victims yesterday were Iraqis.

The Friday airstrike was the third against al-Zarqawi's network in Fallujah in a week, and it came as US tanks exchanged fire with militants on the outskirts of the city, 60km west of Baghdad.

US and Iraqi officials say al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda-linked movement was behind highly coordinated assaults Thursday against police stations and other buildings in five cities. A claim of responsibility in al-Zarqawi's name was posted on an Islamic Web site.

"With God's help we will pursue these people and keep the Iraqi people safe," interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan told reporters. "The time has come for a showdown."

US and Iraqi authorities have long predicted that the insurgents would seek to derail the transfer of sovereignty, set for Wednesday.

After nightfall Friday, six mortar shells exploded near the Green Zone headquarters district of the US occupation, the US military reported. There were no reports of casualties. A bomb also went off outside the home of an Iraqi deputy defense minister, though the official and his family were unhurt, the military said.

US officials estimated 20 to 25 people were killed in Friday's strike in Fallujah. Omar Majeed, 40, who lives in the Fallujah neighborhood which was attacked, said missiles struck a house that was vacated by the owners the day before.

Al-Jazeera television, in a report from Fallujah, said US missiles struck a vacant house but the blast injured four people next door. The report could not be independently confirmed.

CNN cited a US official saying al-Zarqawi may have been in the house and narrowly escaped the strike. The official said a man who may have been al-Zarqawi was thrown to the ground by the blast as he fled, then was helped up by colleagues and driven away in a convoy.

In Washington, several Pentagon officials with access to information about the airstrike said they could not confirm the CNN account.

Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant, has also claimed responsibility for kidnapping and beheading American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean hostage Kim Sun-il.

But a senior administration official acknowledged that intelligence about al-Zarqawi's network was limited.

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