By TAREK EL-TABLAWY
The Associated Press
Friday, May 5, 2006; 2:41 AM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is shown wearing American tennis shoes and unable to operate his automatic rifle in video released by the U.S. military as part of a propaganda war aimed at undercutting the image of the terror leader.
The U.S. command showed the footage to reporters at a time when it is stepping up operations against al-Qaida in Iraq and making overtures to other Sunni groups. The Americans hope to isolate religious extremists from insurgents they believe are more likely to cut a deal to end the war.
The clips shown Thursday were part of a longer video that U.S. troops seized in a raid last month. Al-Qaida in Iraq militants posted an edited version of the same video on the Internet April 25 _ but without the embarrassing segments.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. command, mocked al-Zarqawi as the previously unseen footage showed a smiling al-Qaida leader first firing single shots from a U.S.-made M-249 light machine gun. A frown creeps across al-Zarqawi's face as the weapon jams. He looks at it, confused, then summons another fighter.
"It's supposed to be automatic fire. He's shooting single shots," Lynch said. "Something is wrong with his machine gun. He looks down, can't figure out, calls his friend to come unblock the stoppage and get the weapon firing again."
By contrast, the edited version which the militants posted on the Web showed what happened only after the fighter fixed the weapon _ a fierce-looking al-Zarqawi confidently blasting away with bursts of automatic gunfire.
His fellow fighters and associates appear similarly inept in the newly released footage. One reaches out to grab a just-fired weapon by the barrel, apparently unaware that it would burn his hand. The camera quickly pans to the ground and then away.
"His close associates around him ... do things like grab the hot barrel of the machine gun and burn themselves," Lynch said. "Makes you wonder" about their military skills.
Another clip showed the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi _ who has derided everything Western _ dressed in a black uniform but wearing New Balance tennis shoes as he walked to a white pickup.
Lynch said the full video was discovered during one of several raids against al-Qaida in Iraq safe houses in the Baghdad area starting with an operation last month near Youssifiyah, 12 miles southwest of the capital. U.S. forces have killed 31 "foreign fighters" since April and have captured 161 al-Qaida in Iraq officials since the beginning of the year, Lynch said.
He said al-Zarqawi was focusing operations on the Baghdad area, a religiously mixed city where more than 20 percent of Iraq's 27 million people live. Planning documents also seized in the Youssifiyah raids spelled out this strategy, which also involves fewer attacks in Sunni areas.
"Zarqawi is zooming in on Baghdad, and we are zooming in on Zarqawi," Lynch said.
At least 20 people were killed across the country Thursday, including two American soldiers who died in a roadside bombing in Baghdad. Ten people were killed in a suicide attack at a court building in eastern Baghdad, police said, and the military said U.S. troops killed eight insurgents in a gunfight in Ramadi.
It was unclear at first whether the newly released outtakes would reach a broad Arab audience after Iraqi state television didn't begin airing some of them until 1 a.m. Friday. But the station continued to show portions of the video during the day Friday, and it also turned up on pan-Arab satellite TV Al-Arabiya.
The previously posted al-Qaida footage, in which al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and mocked the U.S., was widely transmitted by Arab satellite stations.
American military officials said the new clips were released to Arab media but too late for many evening newscasts. By late Thursday evening, the stations had yet to air the material.
U.S. authorities have used selective leaks in the past to discredit al-Zarqawi but with uncertain success. The Pentagon was embarrassed in December when reports surfaced that it had paid Iraqi newspapers to publish propaganda stories.
In October, the U.S. released a letter purportedly from bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, urging al-Zarqawi to expand his operations into neighboring Muslim countries. Al-Qaida claimed the letter was fake.
The Army Times newspaper reported this week that American special operations troops "came within a couple of city blocks" of capturing al-Zarqawi in a raid in Youssifiyah in mid-April.
The raid was carried out by the secret Task Force 145, made up of Army Delta Force, Rangers, Navy SEALs and British Special Air Service paratroopers, the newspaper said.
While the military steps up its hunt for al-Zarqawi, U.S. diplomats are making overtures to other Sunni insurgent groups. They hope to persuade those groups to lay down their arms and support the new national unity government, which Washington believes has the best chance of calming sectarian tensions, weakening the insurgency and allowing U.S. and other international troops to leave.
The Americans have made no overtures to Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida in Iraq and Saddam Hussein loyalists, U.S. diplomats have said.
In a bid to counter the U.S. efforts, Sunni militants have targeted Sunnis who cooperate with the government, including Iraqi army and police. A suicide bomber killed two policemen and 13 police recruits Wednesday in the Sunni city of Fallujah.
The day before, 10 people died when a suicide driver detonated his vehicle alongside the convoy of the Sunni governor of Anbar province, although the official escaped serious injury.
On Thursday, 10 people were killed and 52 injured in the suicide bombing at a court in a mixed Shiite-Sunni area of eastern Baghdad, police said.
Lynch cited such attacks as part of al-Zarqawi's campaign of triggering full-scale civil war between Shiites and Sunnis: "He's been told by his leadership that democracy equals failure for Zarqawi in Iraq."