BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi security forces have arrested the “most lethal” top lieutenant of al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq — a man allegedly behind most of the car bombings in Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion, including the 2003 assault on U.N. headquarters that killed 22 people, the prime minister’s office said Monday.
Sami Mohammed Ali Said al-Jaaf, also known as Abu Omar al-Kurdi, was arrested during a raid in Baghdad on Jan. 15, a government statement said Monday. Two other militants linked to Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror group have also been arrested, authorities said.
Al-Jaaf was “the most lethal of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s lieutenants,” the statement said.
Al-Zarqawi heads al-Qaida in Iraq, the terror network’s local affiliate. The group is behind many of the car bombings, beheadings, assassinations and other attacks driving the insurgency in Iraq.
Al-Jaaf was responsible for 32 car bombing attacks that killed hundreds of Iraqis, the statement said. Thaer al-Naqib, spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, said the suspect "confessed to building approximately 75 percent of the car bombs used in attacks in Baghdad since March 2003."
Linked to U.N. attack
He also was linked to the August 2003 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others. The U.N. attack was “planned and directed by two others affiliated with Abu Omar,” the statement said.
The United States has offered a $25 million reward for al-Zarqawi’s capture or death — the same amount as for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
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Also Monday, authorities announced that Iraqi security forces had also arrested a man described as the chief of al-Zarqawi's propaganda operations.
And in the northern city of Mosul, Iraqi forces seized one of al-Zarqawi's weapons suppliers.
Word of the arrests came hours after a suicide driver detonated a car bomb at a guard post outside the Iraqi prime minister’s party headquarters in Baghdad, injuring at least 10 people, and a day after al-Zarqawi promised an all-out war on democracy.
The bomber set off the blast at a police checkpoint on the road to Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord party offices in central Baghdad, shaking the city center with a thunderous explosion. Wounded were eight policemen and two civilians, said Dr. Mudhar Abdul-Hussein of Yarmouk Hospital.
Also on Monday, mortar rounds slammed into an Iraqi National Guard camp near Baghdad International Airport. There was no report of casualties, but the fighting prompted air traffic controllers to deny two Royal Jordanian flights permission to land.
Police officer shot to death
Elsewhere in the capital, gunmen firing from a speeding car shot dead an Iraqi police lieutenant as he was returning home Sunday night, an Interior Ministry official said. North of Baghdad, the deputy governor of Iraq’s Diyala province, Ghassan al-Khadran, escaped an assassination attempt Monday morning as a roadside bomb struck his car.
Three U.S. soldiers also were wounded Sunday in a mortar attack in Samarra north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said. One of the soldiers was being evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Germany with serious injuries.
The attacks occurred six days before Iraq’s crucial national elections, the first since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Insurgents have condemned the elections and vowed to disrupt them.
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In an audiotape posted Sunday on the Web, a speaker claiming to be al-Zarqawi declared “fierce war” on democracy and said anyone who takes part in next weekend’s Iraqi elections would be considered “an infidel.”
“We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology,” the speaker said. “Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it.”
The speaker warned Iraqis to be careful of “the enemy’s plan to implement so-called democracy in your country.” He said the Americans have engineered the election to install Shiite Muslims in power. Al-Zarqawi, who is a Sunni Arab like most of the insurgents here, has in the past branded Shiites as heretics.
The authenticity of the tape could not immediately be verified.
Politicians running on a Shiite clerical-endorsed ticket, the United Iraqi Alliance, appeared to respond to the tape on Monday, playing down fears of an Iranian-style Shiite state.
Hanin Mohammed Qaddou, a Sunni Muslim on the ticket, said the issue of religious government was “not part of the program and it will not be in the near future.”
Pledge not to launch revenge attacks
Alliance leaders also vowed not to seek revenge for attacks by Sunni extremists.
“We believe that we have no justifications, whether religious or political, to escalate the situation and enter into the civil war quagmire because it means the Balkanization of Iraq or the Lebanonization of Iraq,” said Khudayer al-Khuzai of the Islamic Dawa Party-Iraq.
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Meet the Press
In a series of weekend appearances on American television, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq acknowledged there were serious security problems ahead of this weekend’s landmark ballot, in which Iraqis will choose a national legislature that will run the country and draft a permanent constitution. Legislatures in 18 provinces and a regional parliament in the Kurdish-run areas of the north will also be elected.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte acknowledged an increase in rebel intimidation of Iraqi officials and security forces and said serious security problems remain in the Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad.
“But security measures are being taken, by both the multinational forces here in Iraq as well as the Iraqi armed forces and police,” Negroponte told “Fox News Sunday.”
“There will be some problematic areas. ... But even there, great efforts are being made to enable every Iraqi eligible to do so to be able to vote,” he said.
Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice was more upbeat in comments to reporters Sunday at the White House.
“The Iraqis will be — will be just fine,” Rice said. “They’re starting a process and this is an important step, a first step for them in this democratic process.”