BAGHDAD, Iraq – A suicide attack and roadside bombs killed six American soldiers Wednesday, and Iraq’s prime minister warned residents of the insurgent bastion of Fallujah to hand over terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or face attack.
Al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group has claimed responsibility for beheading several foreign hostages and for car bombings throughout the country. A videotape posted Wednesday on an Islamic Web site showed militants linked to al-Zarqawi beheading two Iraqis the terror group accused as spies.
“If they do not turn in al-Zarqawi and his group, we will carry out operations in Fallujah,” Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told a meeting of the 100-member interim National Council. “Fallujah of course is an honest city, but it has been manipulated by a deviant bunch that wants to harm Iraq.”
The attacks on U.S. forces, at a time when the Americans are applying pressure on insurgent strongholds in the Sunni heartland, occurred in the run-up to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which Iraqi television said would begin here Friday.
Some extremists believe they earn a special place in paradise if they die in a jihad, or holy war, during Ramadan. The monthlong holiday of fasting celebrates the time when Muslims believe God revealed their holy book – the Quran – to the Prophet Muhammad.
Iraq’s deteriorating security has slowed reconstruction efforts and forced the United States to divert funds from rebuilding to security.
In Tokyo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged that the United States was initially too slow in channeling money to Iraq, telling a donors’ conference that “it took longer than necessary to get our act together” before turning over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28.
Armitage said reconstruction delays had created a “void,” particularly in the electricity and water sectors in Iraq. But, he added: “It’s not a complete void. We have other money going in.”
Armitage stressed that the United States – Iraq’s leading donor nation, with a pledge of $18.4 billion – is “picking up the pace.”
Wednesday’s suicide attack came when a driver plowed into a U.S. convoy and blew up his car in the northern city of Mosul, killing two American soldiers and wounding five, the military said. Four other soldiers were killed in roadside bombings in the Baghdad area – three late Tuesday and one early Wednesday, the command said.
Last year, the advent of Ramadan was marked by a surge in insurgent attacks. To prevent a repeat, U.S. troops have stepped up offensive operations in Sunni Muslim strongholds to the north and west of Baghdad.
More than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops launched two simultaneous raids Wednesday around Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, to clear the area of insurgents.
“Basically, it’s a pre-Ramadan operation just to clear up some of the area around Baqouba,” said Capt. Marshall Jackson, spokesman for the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
There were no reports of major clashes, but several people were detained. In an unrelated attack, a police captain was killed Wednesday in a drive-by shooting near Baqouba, officials said. Insurgents regularly target Iraq’s security forces, who are seen as collaborators with the United States and its allies.
Elsewhere, U.S. troops sealed off key streets and searched buildings in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, after days of clashes, residents reported. The U.S. command had no comment.
On Tuesday, Iraqi government soldiers backed by U.S. Marine and Army units raided seven mosques in Ramadi, detaining four people and seizing bomb-making materials and pro-insurgent literature, the military said.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have used a mix of diplomacy and force as they try to regain control of insurgent enclaves before nationwide elections scheduled for January. Troops swept into the militant stronghold of Samarra, north of Baghdad, this month and have been carrying out smaller-scale raids in recent days in other areas.
But the major insurgent stronghold is Fallujah, a city of 300,000 that has become the symbol of Sunni resistance. U.S. forces have staged weeks of “precision strikes” aimed at buildings believed to be safehouses of al-Zarqawi’s network and its associates.
At the same time, Iraqi officials have been negotiating with representatives of Fallujah to restore government control of the city, which fell under the rule of extremist religious leaders and their armed fighters after the Marines lifted their three-week siege last April.
The Americans have insisted for months that Fallujah must hand over foreign fighters and those responsible for the brutal slaying last March of four U.S. contractors, whose bodies were desecrated, triggering the siege. Allawi’s Wednesday threat of attack drew a line under the American demand.
But a Fallujah negotiator, Hatem Karim, challenged claims that al-Zarqawi is in the city and said the elusive terror mastermind had become similar to the weapons of mass destruction which Washington had insisted were in Iraq but have never been found.
“We want to know what evidence there is of al-Zarqawi’s presence in Fallujah,” Karim said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television. “Al-Zarqawi has become like Iraqi WMD. …We hear this name, but it doesn’t exist. More than 15 to 20 houses were destroyed in Fallujah because they were accused of harboring al-Zarqawi or al-Zarqawi’s followers.”
He said Iraqi government officials never raised the issue of al-Zarqawi during closed-door talks with the Fallujah delegates.
Earlier Wednesday, Fallujah’s chief negotiator with the government, Sheik Khaled al-Jumeili, told the Associated Press that many issues were resolved but both sides had yet to agree on what happens to specific individuals wanted by U.S. or Iraqi officials.
Al-Jumeili insisted there were “only a handful” of non-Iraqi Arab fighters in the city – a claim the Americans dismiss – and that they would leave if a deal were struck with the government.
“They are outlaws to them but they are mujahedeen to us,” he said of the fighters.
Al-Jumeili said both sides agreed that Fallujah natives be included in the Iraqi National Guard unit which would assume security responsibility in the city. He said there was also agreement to compensate residents whose relatives have been killed or injured or whose property has been damaged. There was no immediate government comment.