2 men being held in connection with beheading of American

Also, U.S. forces engaged in fierce new fighting with backers of al-Sadr

May 22, 2004|By COX NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD. Iraq - Two men are being held in connection with the beheading of American civilian Nicholas Berg, U.S. officials said yesterday, while American forces engaged in fierce new fighting with backers of renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Four people were arrested two days ago in connection with Berg's killing, but two have been released, American military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

Of the two remaining in custody, "We have some intelligence suggesting they have knowledge and perhaps culpability" in Berg's slaying, Kimmitt said, although he cautioned that the pair might be found to have no connection to the killing.

According to an unnamed Iraqi security official quoted by the Associated Press, the men being held are former members of Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen paramilitary group and were led by one of Hussein's relatives.

Kimmitt declined to comment on who the men were or what their affiliations might have been.

Berg, a 26-year-old Pennsylvania man who came alone to Iraq to drum up business repairing cellular telephone towers, was apparently kidnapped about April 10. His headless body was found in Baghdad on May 8, shortly before a video showing his decapitation was released on the Internet by a group linked to al-Qaida.

The CIA reviewed the tape and said it believed the man cutting off Berg's head was likely Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin-Laden who is wanted for numerous attacks in Iraq over the past several months.

Meanwhile, American forces clashed with al-Sadr militia in Karbala, killing 18. Al-Sadr fighters positioned near a holy shrine fired rocket-propelled grenades at American tanks, prompting the Americans to call in an AC-130 gunship to return fire in an effort to avoid hitting the shrine with tank fire, Kimmitt said.

Two Iranian pilgrims to Karbala's holy sites were killed in the fighting, along with a driver for the Al-Jazeera television network, the Associated Press reported, although Kimmitt said he had no knowledge of the network's driver being killed.

Elsewhere in Karbala, American troops withdrew from the Mukhayam mosque in the city center but continued patrolling the city.

Fighting also flared in Najaf and Kufa, with loud explosions echoing in Najaf, the AP reported. But al-Sadr made his regular Friday appearance at a Kufa mosque, where he exhorted followers not to "let my killing or arrest be an excuse to end what you're doing, supporting the truth and standing up to the wrong."

U.S. forces have been cautious in their strategy against al-Sadr, wary of damaging the holy shrines in Karbala and Najaf and inflaming Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. Moderate Iraqi clerics have attempted to broker a deal, with little luck. The Americans insist al-Sadr must disband his militia and face charges in an Iraqi court relating to the murder of a rival cleric last year.

Also yesterday, Kimmitt continued to dispute claims by Iraqis - backed by television footage - that 45 members of a wedding party were killed in the remote desert near the Syrian border in an American attack early Wednesday. Kimmitt insisted that the television images did not match the reports of soldiers who participated in the incident.

The Americans had solid intelligence that the party was a group of foreign fighters attempting to infiltrate Iraq, and soldiers found foreign passports, weapons, cash and satellite communications equipment at the scene, he said.

Pressed about the television images of dead women and children, Kimmitt said no American soldiers on the ground shot at women or children, although he acknowledged that they did see women in the group, some of whom might have died in the fighting.

Coalition officials said again yesterday that the United States had no involvement in raids Thursday on the home and offices of Ahmad Chalabi, once a staunch American ally on the Iraqi Governing Council who has recently criticized the U.S. plan for transferring power to an interim Iraqi government June 30.

Governing council members protested the raids, but Dan Senor, spokesman for American administrator L. Paul Bremer III, said the action was taken as part of an Iraqi judge's investigation, not at Bremer's behest. Iraqi police took computers and documents, and arrested several Chalabi employees on charges of kidnapping, car theft and fraud.

Chalabi, who was not arrested, has said the raids were aimed at pressuring him to stop criticizing the proposed power transfer, which he says will not result in sovereignty for the Iraqi people.

Also yesterday, the last of a contingent of about 1,300 Spanish troops completed their nations' withdrawal from Iraq.

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