Blast kills 3 U.S. soldiers in Iraq

Influential cleric endorses prime minister candidate

militant's arrest revealed

February 26, 2005|By Mike Dorning | Mike Dorning,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A roadside bomb killed three U.S. soldiers and wounded nine others while on a patrol north of Baghdad yesterday, according to the military, as the Iraqi government announced the arrest earlier this month of two men linked to insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In political developments, the leading candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is affiliated with a Shiite religious party, further solidified his position by visiting the country's most influential cleric and claiming his blessing. Al-Jaafari, leader of the conservative Islamic Dawa party, was nominated by the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which received the most votes in the election.

"Ayatollah al-Sistani blessed the decision taken by the alliance about the prime minister post. He respects and supports what the alliance has decided," al-Jaafari said before television cameras assembled outside after a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf.

The United Iraqi Alliance won a majority of seats in the 275-member National Assembly in Iraq's Jan. 30 elections. But the prime minister, who functions as head of government, must be nominated by a presidential council that can be selected only by a two-thirds vote of parliament.

The Shiite alliance is trying to fend off attempts by the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to pick off support from some of its members as the alliance courts representatives of the country's Kurdish minority to achieve the necessary two-thirds support.

The three U.S. soldiers were killed early in the afternoon in an attack in Tarmiyah, about 20 miles north of the capital, raising the U.S. military death toll in Iraq to at least 1,491, according to an Associated Press count since the war began in March 2003.

"There was a group of American soldiers walking in the road while around five Humvees were parking behind them," Waleed Nahed, 35, who lives in the area, told AP.

"I heard a very loud explosion, and I saw bodies flying," Nahed said. Other witnesses said they saw about a dozen blood-spattered U.S. soldiers lying on the ground after the blast.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government announced that a Feb. 20 raid in Anah, about 160 miles northwest of Baghdad, led to the arrest of Talib Mikhlif Arsan Walman al-Dulaymi, also known as Abu Qutaybah. A government statement described him as a "key lieutenant" for the Zarqawi network responsible for "arranging safe houses and transportation as well as passing packages and funds to al-Zarqawi."

The statement said the raid also resulted in the arrest of a man who sometimes worked as al-Zarqawi's driver, Ahmad Khalid Marad Ismail al-Rawi, also known as Abu Uthman.

"We are very close to al-Zarqawi, and I believe that there are few weeks separating us from him," Iraq's interim national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, told the Associated Press.

He described the latest capture as another setback for al-Zarqawi's organization, still reeling from previous arrests and the killing of Omar Hadid, another of his senior aides, in November's assault on the city of Fallujah.

None of the men are on the list of 29 wanted by the interim Iraq government and posted recently on the U.S. Central Command Web site. That, however, does not necessarily mean that their alleged positions in the militant group were insignificant.

At any rate, Iraqi authorities have been eager to promote the message that they are making headway in their fight against the insurgency. Earlier this week, state television broadcast what it said were confessions by Syrian-trained militants.

Last week, police said they had arrested two other leaders of the insurgency in Baqouba, including a top aide to al-Zarqawi named Haidar Abu Bawari.

Elsewhere, a Polish soldier was killed yesterday and four more were injured when an armored vehicle collided with an Iraqi bus near Diwaniyah, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, the U.S. military said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 1,491 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 1,353 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Marine Lance Cpl. Trevor D. Aston, 32, Austin, Texas; died Tuesday after a vehicle accident in Anbar province, Iraq; assigned to Marine Forces Reserves 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, Austin, Texas.

Killed Monday when an explosive detonated near their convoy in Baghdad; assigned to the Minnesota Army National Guard, 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery, Montevideo, Minn.:

1st Lt. Jason Timmerman, 24, Tracy, Minn.

Staff Sgt. David Day, 25, St. Louis Park, Minn.

Sgt. Jesse Lhotka, 24, Alexandria, Minn.

Associated Press

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