Violence Blamed on Zarqawi Allies

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 19, 2005

BAGHDAD, May 18 -- A senior U.S. military official told reporters Wednesday that the recent surge in violence in Iraq followed a meeting in Syria last month of associates of the Jordanian insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.

The rash of bombings and assassinations across the country this month has killed more than 450 people and shattered a period of relative calm after Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary elections.

Zarqawi "wasn't happy with how the insurgency was going. The government was getting stronger and coalition forces not being defeated," the U.S. official said, according to news service accounts of the briefing, which was given on the condition that he not be named.

The disclosures followed comments made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who during a visit to Iraq on Sunday expressed concern about the "gathering of terrorist networks" in Syria. Last weekend, U.S. Marines wrapped up an offensive in northwestern Iraq, near the Syrian border, aimed at uprooting sanctuaries for foreign fighters who had crossed into the country.

Zarqawi leads the group al Qaeda in Iraq, which has asserted responsibility for many of the insurgency's deadliest attacks. The U.S. military has put a $25 million bounty on his head. Reports that he had been wounded or killed during the recent Marine offensive have been denied in Internet postings.

The U.S. official who briefed reporters Wednesday said that it was unclear whether Zarqawi attended the meeting in Syria but that his lieutenants were encouraged to step up attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, particularly with car bombings. Insurgents have carried out 21 car bombings in Baghdad this month, compared with 25 in all of 2004, the official said.

An audio recording posted on the Internet on Wednesday and attributed to Zarqawi justified the deaths of Muslims in attacks against U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies, saying holy war was too important to be hindered, the Associated Press reported. The authenticity of the tape, posted on a forum where al Qaeda in Iraq statements are often found, could not be independently verified, the AP reported.

The man purported to be Zarqawi, who like the bulk of Iraqi insurgents is a Sunni Muslim, denounced Iraq's Shiite Muslims as collaborators with the Americans and said leaders of the country's Shiite-led government were traitors to Islam. The recording accused Shiite militias of assassinating Sunni leaders, kidnapping Sunni women and seizing mosques since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago.

In a further sign of tensions between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites, religious leaders traded charges Wednesday over who was responsible for a recent wave of execution-style killings. Two Sunni clerics were found dead in Baghdad on Tuesday, and a Shiite cleric was shot to death. The bodies of more than 60 Iraqis who were apparently executed have been discovered across the country in recent days, many with their hands bound and bullets in their skulls.

"We know who is killing the imams and preachers of the mosques. We know who is killing people going to prayers. The ones responsible for these killings are the Badr Brigades," Harith Dhari, the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni religious organization, said in a televised address.

The Badr organization is affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major Shiite political party that is part of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's ruling coalition. While the Badr group has recast itself as a political organization in recent years, it is still widely believed to operate as a militia.

"They've killed Sunnis and Shiites. They've killed anyone who stood in their way. The one responsible for the tension in the country is Badr," Dhari said.

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