By Jonathan Finer and Marwan Ani
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 27, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 27 -- The government said Thursday it was close to launching the largest Iraqi security operation in Baghdad to date, deploying 40,000 troops and seeking to trap insurgents with a tight cordon around the capital "like a bangle around the wrist."
The announcement about the operation in Baghdad came as several Iraqi officials and a Western diplomat said the insurgency would be significantly weakened if reports that Jordanian insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was severely wounded proved true.
Zarqawi is "a personal, active leader" whose group, al Qaeda in Iraq, is the only part of an otherwise fragmented insurgency that shows "a kind of central nervous system," the Western diplomat said.
"If this guy dies, it would have a very significant effect," said the diplomat, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. He added that reports of Zarqawi's worsening condition seemed credible but were not yet verified.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials here and in Washington continued to urge the Iraqi government to demonstrate its resolve against the wave of violence that has killed more than 600 people in the past month. Attacks continued Thursday as a pair of explosions in Baghdad killed at least seven people and as a college administrator and an Industry Ministry official were assassinated.
The security initiative, dubbed Operation Lightning, could begin as early as Sunday. Officials said it would be the first in a series of sweeps throughout the country. Another one, to be held a week later, will target the insurgent stronghold along Iraq's border with Syria.
"Anyone who tries to shed the blood of Iraqis, we will take them down," said Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi, who announced the operation at a joint news conference with Interior Minister Bayan Jabr. They said planning had been underway for 15 days and was supervised by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.
"The goal is to take an assault position rather than a defensive position" and to "uproot terrorists and terror cells inside the Baghdad area," Dulaimi said.
Police and soldiers will divide the city into 22 sectors, setting up 675 checkpoints at Baghdad's main intersections and gathering intelligence to be used in raids, Dulaimi said. When targets are identified, commando and special forces units will be prepared to strike on short notice, he added.
The Western diplomat said soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division would participate.
A principal focus of the operation, officials said, would be finding and dismantling workshops where car bombs are being assembled. Baghdad has had more car bombings this month than in all of 2004.
Jabr, whose police officers have been accused by Sunni Muslim leaders of attacking clerics, said no mosques or other places of worship would be raided during the operation except on his orders. He called on Muslim imams leading Friday prayers to ask the public to remain calm and to cooperate.
In response to a question on Zarqawi's condition, Jabr said that five days ago the government received reports that he had been wounded and that officials were unsure if he was dead. Zarqawi is the most-wanted militant leader in Iraq; the United States is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to his death or capture.
Asked if he believed Zarqawi was wounded, Jabr responded, "Yes, it is true." Asked how he knew that, he said only, "It is my job."
Reports this week from sources within the insurgency indicated Zarqawi had been shot in the lung during an ambush last weekend by U.S. forces, though the military said it had no information on such an incident. A posting Thursday on a Web site sometimes used by militant groups said Zarqawi had fled the country and had been succeeded by a top lieutenant.
But later in the day, a statement purportedly from al Qaeda in Iraq denied that Zarqawi had left Iraq and that a new leader had been named. "We have announced the injury of [Zarqawi] only to prove our credibility so that our brothers will be reassured after it was publicized that [he] had been killed," said the statement attributed to Abu Maysara al Iraqi, identified as a spokesman for al Qaeda in Iraq.
Abu Karrar, a deputy to Zarqawi, said in an interview Thursday, "He is still in Iraq undergoing treatment," adding that Zarqawi had twice lost consciousness in recent days because of difficulty breathing.
In interviews in Baghdad on Thursday, several Iraqi and Western officials expressed the belief that Zarqawi was, if not dead, at least losing control of his organization and that the insurgency would suffer as a result.
An Iraqi government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the news about Zarqawi suggested a rift had emerged between homegrown insurgents, many of whom are Sunni Arabs loyal to the former government of Saddam Hussein, and the foreign fighters led by Zarqawi.
"The rift . . . has reached the point at which their interests have split," the official said. Zarqawi's "head might have been the price of something," he added, suggesting Iraqi insurgents may have killed Zarqawi as part of a reconciliation deal.
The Western diplomat also said he believed that Zarqawi's support among Sunnis had been undermined. "He needs the larger Sunni Arab insurgency to swim in," the diplomat said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, a U.S. helicopter went down near Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, late Thursday after receiving small arms fire. The military said Friday that two U.S. soldiers were killed in the crash.
A major U.S.-led operation against insurgents continued in Haditha, 125 miles northwest of Baghdad, where the military said a U.S. Marine was killed Wednesday by small-arms fire.
The operation involves more than 1,000 troops and is the second one of its kind this month in Anbar province, the entry point into Iraq for foreign fighters from Syria, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Marines in the town of Ubaydi, along the Syrian border, said a raid on a suspected militant safe house led to the rescue of a construction worker who had been kidnapped and beaten.
Fighting also continued between U.S. forces and gunmen in Tall Afar, about 250 miles north of Baghdad, where sectarian violence has been building for several days.
The U.S. military said in a statement that an Iraqi child was killed in a firefight between soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and gunmen who the military said "used Iraqi children as shields."
Amjad Abdul Kareem Qadwo said he moved his family from Tall Afar to Mosul, about 40 miles to the west, to escape the fighting. "I left the city and our house because we saw death every day," he said. "Our kids now, when they hear a loud noise, they panic because they think it is a shooting."
U.S. and Iraqi forces killed six insurgents, wounded 26 and arrested 20 others Thursday, according to Gen. Saeed Mohammed, a police press officer.
Jabr, the interior minister, said that more police had been dispatched to Tall Afar and that Sadoun, the defense minister, had recently visited the region to instruct Iraqi forces.
The U.S. military also reported that three detainees had escaped from Abu Ghraib prison, outside Baghdad.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Kirkuk, a roadside bomb wounded three Iraqi civilians and two U.S. soldiers, according to police Lt. Col. Yadgar Abdullah.
And in nearby Daquq, insurgents employed what police called an unprecedented method of delivering a bomb. They strapped an explosive belt onto a dog to target an Iraqi army convoy as it passed a mosque, according to Col. Mohammed Barazanchi, chief of the Daquq police. The dog was killed when the bomb went off, but no other casualties were reported.
Ani reported from Kirkuk. Special correspondents Khalid Saffar, Naseer Nouri, Bassam Sebti and Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad, Dlovan Barwari in Mosul and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.