By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 16, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 15 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office on Thursday accepted the resignation of an aide who had told a reporter that Maliki was considering a limited amnesty that would likely include guerrillas who had attacked U.S. troops, the aide said.
Also, on a day when the U.S. military announced that the death toll for American personnel had reached 2,500, U.S. military and counterterrorism officials said they believed they had identified the new head of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq: Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian about 40 years old and a longtime associate of Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. A Web site tied to al-Qaeda in Iraq on Monday identified the same man as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, a pseudonym meaning "the immigrant."
A veteran of the Zawahiri-led Egyptian Islamic Jihad and of al-Qaeda's organization in Afghanistan, Masri -- also a pseudonym, meaning "the Egyptian" -- has been in Iraq at least since 2003, officials said. Since the 2004 battle of Fallujah, he had been a trusted lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent leader killed in a U.S. attack north of Baghdad last week.
Since Fallujah, Masri had been in charge of Zarqawi's operations in southern Iraq. Officials say they believe he also has been instrumental in enlisting and managing foreign fighters allied with the Sunni Arab insurgency.
The Maliki aide who resigned, Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, stood by his account of amnesty considerations, reported Thursday by The Washington Post. Kadhimi said Maliki had indicated the same position less directly in public. "The prime minister himself has said that he is ready to give amnesty to the so-called resistance, provided they have not been involved in killing Iraqis," Kadhimi said Thursday.
Maliki's office issued a statement earlier Thursday saying, "Mr. Adnan Kadhimi doesn't represent the Iraqi government in this issue, and Mr. Kadhimi is not an advisor or spokesman for the prime minister."
Kadhimi, who also worked as an aide to the previous prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, said he had submitted his resignation earlier in the week. He was informed Thursday that it had been accepted, he said.
Another Maliki aide, asked if the amnesty being considered by the government was likely to apply to those who had attacked U.S. forces, said Maliki had been "clear, saying those whose hands weren't stained with Iraqi blood" may be eligible for any amnesty.
That aide spoke on condition of anonymity, saying Maliki had not authorized anyone to speak for him. Another aide declined to comment, on the same grounds.
On the issue of clemency for those who had attacked U.S. troops, Kadhimi was quoted in Thursday's Post as saying: "That's an area where we can see a green line. There's some sort of preliminary understanding between us and the MNF-I," the U.S.-led Multi-National Force-Iraq, "that there is a patriotic feeling among the Iraqi youth and the belief that those attacks are legitimate acts of resistance and defending their homeland. These people will be pardoned definitely, I believe."
In Washington, Senate Democrats offered a resolution Thursday demanding that President Bush repudiate the amnesty proposal regarding those who attacked American forces.
"It is shocking that the Iraqi prime minister is reportedly considering granting amnesty to insurgents who have killed U.S. troops," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "On the day we lost the 2,500th soldier in Iraq, the mere idea that this proposal may go forward is an insult to the brave men and women who have died in the name of Iraqi freedom. I call on President Bush to denounce this proposal immediately."
Maliki's broad statements about amnesty, at a news conference Wednesday in Baghdad, marked the first time a leader from Iraq's dominant Shiite religious parties had indicated openness to pardoning members of the Sunni insurgency.
The statement from Maliki's office Thursday also said: "It is not true what some of the media outlets including The Washington Post have said about the willingness of the Iraqi government to talk with armed groups."
At Wednesday's news conference, Maliki said reconciliation could include an amnesty for those "who weren't involved in the shedding of Iraqi blood. Also, it includes talks with the armed men who opposed the political process and now want to turn back to political activity." Maliki's comments were in Arabic and televised. Other Western media outlets rendered the same translation, although saying "gunmen" instead of "armed men."
Meanwhile Thursday, bombings in Baghdad and northern Iraq killed eight Iraqi policemen and soldiers as the capital remained under heavy security during daylight hours.
In the southern city of Karbala, U.S. and Iraqi forces detained the leader of the provincial council, Aqeel al-Zubaidy, leading the council to suspend operations and sparking small-scale street protests, Iraqi officials said. The U.S. military, in a statement later, announced the arrest of a "terrorist leader" it referred to as Sheik Aqeel.
"Aqeel commands a Karbala terrorist network and is wanted for assassinating Iraqi citizens and planning and ordering attacks against Iraqi and Coalition forces," said the statement, which said Aqeel was responsible for the deaths of six soldiers from the U.S.-led military force last year and a soldier and interpreter earlier this month.
Shiite militias are considered the main threat to security in southern Iraq, but it was not immediately clear if the detained official belonged to one.
Shiite officials in Baghdad and Karbala, a city holy to Shiites, rushed to his defense. Karbala's governor called the arrest "a dangerous precedent."
Also Thursday, the Iraqi government released a document it said was found before Zarqawi's death during a raid on an insurgent safe house. The document, which described the insurgency as "gloomy" because of gains by Iraq's security forces, called on insurgents to foment strife among Shiites and between the United States and Iran.
The authenticity of the document, which closely echoes accounts of insurgent strategy offered by Iraq's Shiite political leaders, could not be independently verified. It was written in a style different from typical statements issued by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which refer to Shiites as "rejectionists" or "dogs" and to U.S. forces as "crusaders."
The U.S. military death toll in Iraq of 2,500 announced Thursday includes nearly 2,000 killed in action. These deaths have been caused mainly by roadside bombs, which continue to inflict a stream of American casualties despite gains in armor and the growth of Iraqi security forces.
In addition, 18,490 U.S. service members have been wounded since the March 2003 invasion, more than 8,500 of them seriously enough that they were not returned to duty within three days, according to Pentagon figures.
Roadside bombs -- known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs -- accounted for more than half of the deaths this year. Hostile fire from small arms and other weapons were the second-biggest cause of death. To date, 528 of the deaths have been non-hostile, resulting from accidents, illness, suicides and other causes.
"What is significant and troublesome is that the casualty rate per month hasn't really declined," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution here. "Unfortunately, any hopes we had that we have come to the end of this rate of taking casualties have been dashed."
At this rate, if the war extends until 2008, "it's very likely that victory will mean 4,000 killed," said Anthony Cordesman, a military historian at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The number of Iraqi civilians and military personnel killed since the start of the war ranges from 43,000 to 49,000, according to estimates from news agencies, research groups and other sources.
The issue of Zarqawi's successor has been a major question for Iraqi and U.S. officials. In the days following Zarqawi's death, several presumed candidates surfaced in statements appearing on Web sites used by militant groups. One statement, in the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was signed by Abu Hamza al-Muhajer and vowed to avenge Zarqawi's death.
At a news conference Thursday in Baghdad, a U.S. military spokesman said Muhajer had been identified as Masri. "We think they are one and the same at this point," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV. "We'll continue to do further analysis."
"Al-Masri's intimate knowledge of al-Qaeda in Iraq and his close relationship with [Zarqawi's] operations will undoubtedly help facilitate and enable them to regain some momentum if, in fact, he is the one that assumes the leadership role," Caldwell said.
Beyond some bare facts, little is certain about the person whose photograph -- showing a youthful man with neatly trimmed facial hair, in traditional white Gulf Arab dress -- was released in Baghdad by the U.S. Central Command. Officials in Washington said Masri is also known -- and equally unknown -- by the name Yusif al-Dardiri.
The question of who takes over Zarqawi's leadership role is important, one counterterrorism official said, because of perceived past divisions between al-Qaeda and Zarqawi's operations in Iraq. Last October, the U.S. government released a letter it said had been intercepted en route from Zawahiri to Zarqawi expressing concerns about public beheadings of hostages in Iraq and attempts to foment divisions between Sunnis and the majority Shiites.
"Zawahiri's big issue was the negative publicity that those attacks were generating," said the official, who said he was not authorized to discuss the subject on the record. The question now, he said, was whether Masri's primary allegiance is to his Egyptian mentor, Zawahiri, or to Zarqawi.
U.S. analysts have also been watching carefully for signs of a split between domestic-led Sunni groups with nationalistic aims in Iraq and those elements of the insurgency whose goals are more in keeping with bin Laden's overall objective of expanding violent jihad across the Arab word.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.