Car bomb kills at least 16 Iraqi officers at checkpoint

Marines say top aide to al-Zarqawi captured

October 24, 2004|By Monte Morin | Monte Morin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A suicide car bomb detonated outside the gates of a Marine base in western Iraq yesterday, killing at least 16 Iraqi police officers and wounding 40 others at a police checkpoint.

Other bloody attacks on Iraqis occurred in northern Iraq cities, including Mosul, where two truck drivers were killed.

Meanwhile, Marines said they had captured a top lieutenant of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an early morning raid in Fallujah, and authorities reported successes in a weapons buyback program in a volatile Baghdad neighborhood.

The deadly car bomb near Baghdadi, about 140 miles west of Baghdad, exploded around 7 a.m. local time outside the Al Asad Marine base, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. No Marines were injured in the blast, officials said.

Two truck drivers - one Turkish and one Yugoslavian - were killed and two others wounded in the Mosul attack on a convoy. A survivor said the convoy had just delivered biscuits to a U.S. military base and was heading back to Baghdad about noon when gunmen in a speeding BMW opened fire on them.

The incidents, part of a flurry of attacks against Iraqi and U.S. military targets, came as Marines continued a months-long series of strikes against suspected terrorist safe houses, meeting places and weapons storage sites in the rebel stronghold of Fallujah.

In a raid that occurred about 1:30 a.m. yesterday, Marines reported capturing a member of al-Zarqawi's "inner circle." Until recently, the man was considered to be a minor player in the insurgent network. However, the death or capture of a number of terrorist suspects in U.S. attacks had elevated the prisoner to the position of a senior leader, a U.S. military statement said.

U.S. military officials insist that al-Zarqawi is behind many of the "most heinous suicide bombings, mortar attacks, kidnappings and shootings that have claimed hundreds of Iraqi lives," according to a statement released yesterday. "This past week, a group led by al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and said it was in contact with al-Qaida over operations in Iraq."

U.S. efforts to destroy al-Zarqawi's network and wrest control of Fallujah before national elections planned for January were the basis of a U.S. request to move 850 British troops from Iraq's south to an area south of Baghdad. The troop movement, which was approved this week, will free U.S. forces for a planned offensive in Fallujah.

In Baghdad yesterday, several explosions were heard, including one from a rocket that slammed into the offices of the Iraqi Bar Association, blowing a hole in the ceiling. The impact occurred at about 10:30 a.m., in the upscale Mansour district, an Iraqi National Guard officer said. Officials suspect the missile was intended to hit a nearby National Guard headquarters.

Also yesterday, officials announced that a weeklong weapons buyback program in the Sadr City neighborhood, a longtime hub of violence since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, has led to the gathering of more than 9,000 weapons, including 2,000 AK-47 rifles, 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 1,000 grenade launchers. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said that $5 million had been spent on the buyback program.

Both U.S. and Iraqi officials said they were cautiously optimistic about the success of the weapons buyback, which is part of an overall plan to restore peace and order to the volatile Shiite Muslim neighborhood in eastern Baghdad.

"We are hoping to expand this successful initiative to other cities around Iraq," Salih said. "This gives a chance to all Iraqis who have unlicensed arms to trade them off for money."

Once the threat is reduced in Sadr City, U.S. officials plan to move in with tens of millions of dollars in water, sewer and other projects - all held up because of violence. The $5 million paid for arms and ammunition in recent days contrasts to $1.35 million paid out during a U.S.-sponsored weapons buyback in Sadr City in May.

But authorities said that it was impossible to determine if the bulk of the weapons came from Sadr City or were turned in by weapons dealers and others from elsewhere in the capital and throughout Iraq.

Meanwhile, the husband of the kidnapped director of CARE International's operations in Iraq appealed for her release. Margaret Hassan, 59, who has British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship, was seized Tuesday in western Baghdad. On Friday, she made an emotional televised plea to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to save her life by withdrawing his country's troops from Iraq.

Yesterday, her Iraqi husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, begged for the kidnappers to free her "in the name of Islam."

"It hurts to watch my wife cry," Tahseen Hassan said on Al-Arabiya television. "This scene has saddened and worried her friends and loved ones. I plead with you, in the name of Islam and Arabism - while we are in the most sacred Islamic month - that my wife and beloved return to me."

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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