U.S. profiles Iraq's new terror chief

June 16, 2006|By BORZOU DARAGAHI

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military released new information yesterday about the Egyptian militant who it thinks has taken the place of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the new head of al-Qaida in Iraq.

At a news briefing in the Iraqi capital, the U.S. military showed reporters a previously classified picture of the Egyptian-born bomb expert known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

"It's important for the people of Iraq to know who this is," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

Caldwell said U.S. officials debated for days about whether releasing the photo and a brief biographical sketch would bolster al-Masri's media profile and play into his hands. "Our intention is not to glorify him," he said.

The U.S. intention instead appears to be to focus attention on the foreign element of Iraq's insurgency, a small but effective force within a broader opposition led by Sunni Arabs. Masri and Muhajir mean "Egyptian" and "immigrant" in Arabic.

"He has absolutely no ties to this country," Caldwell said.

Al-Masri began his journey in Islamist circles in 1982 as a disciple of Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who is a deputy to Osama bin Laden, said Caldwell, citing information from the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Al-Masri went to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1999, where he trained at bin Laden's Farouk camp and met al-Zarqawi. After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, he went to Iraq, where he reunited with al-Zarqawi and became his trusted deputy.

During the first year of the insurgency, al-Masri helped draw other insurgent groups into al-Qaida's fold and worked with al-Zarqawi's deputies in Fallujah, directing suicide bombers and car bombs to other parts of the country, the military said.

After U.S. Marines overran Fallujah in November 2004, al-Masri became al-Qaida's emir of southern Iraq.

U.S. military officials also provided details yesterday of the June 7 bombing of al-Zarqawi's safe house near Baqoubah. They said two men in a motor vehicle - possibly informants inside al-Zarqawi's network - left the house minutes before U.S. forces verified that there were no friendly forces in the area and ordered the airstrike.

Caldwell said al-Zarqawi, who lived for an hour after the bombing, spit up a pint and a half of blood while being treated, a sign that he had suffered massive internal trauma when the two 500-pound bombs were dropped by F-16 fighters.

Caldwell said the bombing badly damaged al-Zarqawi's network, throwing its leadership into disarray and forcing it to abandon safe houses. In the week since al-Zarqawi's capture, U.S. and Iraqi forces have conducted 452 raids and killed 104 insurgents, he said.

Al-Zarqawi's organization is expected to "reset" under new leadership, however, he said, adding, "They've been very resilient."

National security adviser Mowafaq Rubaie, a Shiite, released a purported al-Qaida memo that said insurgents were having trouble holding their own against U.S.-trained Iraqi forces and aimed to spark a war between Iran and the United States as a way to distract Americans.

"We think that the best suggestions in order to get out of this crisis is to entangle the American forces into another war against another country ... and inflame the situation between America and Iran," said a translation of the document released by the Iraqi official.

Caldwell said the document, which was found at an al-Zarqawi safe house before last week's bombing, appeared to be authentic.

Its rhetoric and tactics differ markedly from those in previous al-Qaida documents and from public communications, and appeared to reflect the allegations against the insurgency often made by Shiite government officials.

Calm prevailed through much of Baghdad yesterday, which is under a new security plan and a 9 p.m. curfew, but at least 18 Iraqis were killed elsewhere yesterday, and seven bodies were found.

Interior Ministry officials said 10 tribal relatives of Sunni Arab lawmaker Mohammad Daini were pulled off a bus and shot to death near Baqoubah. Daini had videotaped prisoners alleging torture and corruption in a local jail and sent the footage to Arab television stations.

Gunmen killed four civilians and wounded 14 near a mosque in Tikrit; a city official was assassinated in Basra; a roadside bomb killed three civilians near Hilla; and police found seven unidentified bodies, with bullet wounds and signs of torture, in the capital.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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