Insurgents vow to avenge chief

Attacks pledged in wake of al-Zarqawi's death

June 12, 2006|By LIZ SLY | LIZ SLY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Al-Qaida in Iraq vowed yesterday to carry out "major attacks" in Iraq to avenge the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and to demonstrate that the network remains a force to be reckoned with despite the loss of its leader.

In a statement posted on the Web site used by al-Qaida and other insurgent groups, the organization said it held a meeting of its top leaders and that they resolved to "prepare major attacks that will shake the enemy like an earthquake and rattle them out of sleep."

Such threats come as no surprise in the wake of the death of the leader of the group responsible for the most deadly terror attacks in Iraq over the past three years. For days, postings on the Web site have been lauding al-Zarqawi's achievements and encouraging Muslim fighters to come to Iraq to avenge his death.

Whether the group will prove capable of regenerating itself and reclaiming the initiative with the kind of bombings and kidnappings that catapulted al-Zarqawi to infamy is something the U.S. military will be watching closely.

Also yesterday, U.S. and Iraqi authorities released more than 200 prisoners in a bid to promote national unity. But that effort faltered as Sunni Arabs demanded more releases and the Iraqi parliament was forced to postpone its session to give the main political blocs more time to decide on the powers of the governmental body.

U.S. officials hope the damage inflicted on al-Qaida by al- Zarqawi's death and by a series of raids will seriously disrupt the network.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the military would continue to press the advantage.

"That's expected. They are hurt badly," he said, when asked about the al-Qaida threat.

Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, told CNN that he thinks the death of al-Zarqawi is a "huge loss" for al-Qaida. "They're trying to make up for the huge loss and the disorientation they are suffering from, because there is a huge vacuum of power now within al-Qaida," he said.

The statement threatening fresh attacks was made in the name of al-Qaida in Iraq but was issued in the name of the Mujahadeen Shura Council, an umbrella group of six radical insurgent groups that share al-Qaida's goals. The statement pledged the group's allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, the fugitive al-Qaida founder and global leader. Al-Qaida in Iraq has not named a leader to replace al-Zarqawi.

The threat came as the U.S. military said medical specialists have concluded an autopsy on al-Zarqawi's body and might release the results today.

Casey said he has not seen the autopsy, but he dismissed as "baloney" reports that al-Zarqawi did not die in the airstrike but was beaten to death by U.S. forces who arrived at the scene.

He did, however, confirm a portion of the account given to news organizations by a witness called Mohammed that al- Zarqawi was being loaded into an ambulance when U.S. forces arrived and that they removed him from the vehicle.

"Our soldiers who came on the scene found him being put in an ambulance by Iraqi police. They took him off, rendered first aid, and he expired," Casey said. "And so he died while American soldiers were attempting to save his life."

The first U.S. account said al-Zarqawi was dead when U.S. forces arrived. That version was then revised to say that he was clinging to life when U.S. soldiers found him on a stretcher. No mention was made of an ambulance or of an attempt to resuscitate him.

The violence in Iraq has not abated since the death of al-Zarqawi on Wednesday, but a feared surge in attacks to avenge his death has not materialized.

In the worst violence yesterday, five civilians were killed in a battle between British troops in the southern city of Basra and militiamen loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a reminder that the Sunni-dominated insurgency is not the only threat to security in Iraq.

At least nine other fatal shootings were reported across the country yesterday.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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