BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi interim government announced the arrest of a man it described as a key figure in the country’s most feared terrorist group and expressed confidence Friday it was tightening the noose around his leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Word of the capture came as insurgents ambushed a U.S. patrol, killing three American soldiers and wounding nine. Friday’s attack took place in Tarmiyah, about 20 miles north of the capital.
In Haqlaniyah, 85 miles northwest of Baghdad, residents said U.S. military vehicles equipped with loudspeakers were driving through town offering $25 million for information leading to the arrest of al-Zarqawi – thought to be one of the masterminds behind a wave of car bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings across Iraq.
“We are very close to al-Zarqawi, and I believe that there are few weeks separating us from him,” Iraq’s interim national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, told the Associated Press.
He described the latest capture as another blow to al-Zarqawi’s organization, still reeling from previous arrests and the killing of Omar Hadid, another of his senior aides, in November’s assault on the city of Fallujah.
Talib Mikhlif Arsan Walman al-Dulaymi, also known as Abu Qutaybah, was arrested Sunday in a raid by Iraqi security services in Annah, a Sunni triangle town 160 miles northwest of Baghdad, the government said.
The government said Al-Dulaymi was a top aide to the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, who has described himself as al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq. Al-Dulaymi was responsible for finding safe houses and transportation for members of the terrorist group, according to the announcement.
Also arrested in Sunday’s raid was Ahmad Khalid Marad Ismail al-Rawi, identified as one of al-Zarqawi’s drivers. Both have family names indicating they are from the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
The announcement came a day after the government said it captured the leader of an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cell in Baqouba allegedly responsible for carrying out a string of beheadings in Iraq. It identified the man as Mohammed Najam Ibrahim and said his brother had also been arrested. No date was given. Baqouba is 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
None of the three names is on the list of 29 wanted by the interim Iraq government and posted recently on the U.S. Central Command Web site. That, however, does not necessarily mean their alleged positions in the terror group were insignificant.
At any rate, Iraqi authorities have been eager to promote the message that they are making headway in their fight against the insurgency. Earlier this week, state television broadcast what it said were confessions by Syrian-trained militants.
Last week, police said they’d arrested two other leaders of the insurgency in Baqouba, including a top aide to al-Zarqawi named Haidar Abu Bawari.
But al-Dulaymi’s role was crucial because he “filled the role of key lieutenant for the al-Zarqawi network, arranging safe houses and transportation as well as passing packages and funds to al-Zarqawi,” the government said.
It added that “his extensive contacts and operational ability throughout western Iraq made him a critical figure in the Zarqawi network.”
According to al-Rubaie, government security services managed to infiltrate al-Zarqawi’s network – a possible sign of its growing weakness.
“The Iraqi security forces have managed to insert embedded policemen inside the al-Zarqawi group, and the second element is that the Iraqi people, especially those in the so-called Sunni triangle, became more cooperative in informing the police about terrorists’ activities and movement – especially the foreigners,” al-Rubaie said.
Confronting the violence will be the top priority of Iraq’s new government, and the country came one step closer to acquiring a prime minister after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani endorsed conservative Islamic Dawa party leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari for the job.
The Iranian-born al-Sistani is the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, and his endorsement should solidify al-Jaafari’s nomination by the United Iraq Alliance, which emerged the dominant political force in Jan. 30 elections.
A conservative Shiite cleric who is a member of the alliance praised the U.S.-funded state television station for broadcasting the confessions by Syrian-trained insurgents – including one of an alleged Syrian intelligence officer – who said they had carried out car bombings and beheadings around Iraq.
“I praise Al-Iraqiya television for showing us these criminals,” Sheik Jalal Al-Deen Al-Saghir said during a sermon at Friday prayers in the Buratha mosque in Baghdad. “I want to thank the National Guard and police who arrested them.”
North of the capital, the ambush on the U.S. patrol Friday raised the American military death toll in Iraq to at least 1,489, according to an Associated Press count since the war began in March 2003.
“There was a group of American soldiers walking in the road while around five Humvees were parking behind them,” said Waleed Nahed, 35, who lives in the area. “I heard a very loud explosion and I saw bodies flying.”
The military said three U.S. soldiers were also killed Thursday in separate attacks.
In Baghdad, another soldier died of “non-battle injuries,” the military said, adding that it was investigating the incident.
Also in the capital, a man fired into a crowd gathered around U.S. soldiers who had cordoned off the site of a roadside bombing. The bombing killed three Iraqis, and the gunman killed two Iraqi onlookers before fleeing.
Elsewhere, a Polish armored vehicle crashed into an Iraqi bus, killing one Polish soldier and injuring four other troops, the U.S.-led coalition said. There was no word on whether there were any Iraqi casualties in the crash near Diwaniyah, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.