BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi government said it's captured three top operatives of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terrorist network, announcing the arrests Friday in an apparent effort to calm Iraqis rattled by violence two days before national elections.
Five American soldiers were killed by bombs in Baghdad Friday, and a small U.S. helicopter crashed—though probably not because of enemy fire—as Iraqi security forces worked to secure polling sites for Sunday's vote.
If others don't quickly take their places, the arrests of the alleged operatives could be a turning point in the campaign against al-Zarqawi, reducing the number of attacks and leading to al-Zarqawi's capture. That would put a serious dent in the insurgency, though it wouldn't solve the problem of Baathist loyalists, domestic jihadists and criminal gangs.
Qassim Dawoud, the interim minister of state for national security, said Iraqi forces nabbed al-Zarqawi's main lieutenant in Baghdad in late December and another high-ranking member of his organization earlier this month.
"As a minister of state, I would like to give a present to the Iraqi people today by announcing that we have captured two men who are Zarqawi's terrorists and Saddamists," he said. "We are going to have a better future for Iraq. All Iraqis should go and vote. In every part of Iraq, they are going to vote. There are no exceptions."
Interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said Iraqi forces also arrested one of al-Zarqawi's military advisers and boasted that "we are getting close to finishing off al-al-Zarqawi. And we will get rid of him."
The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi is believed to be the mastermind behind many suicide car bombings and the beheadings of kidnapping victims. He's promised violence and bloodshed on election day, warning Iraqis to stay away from polls and vowing to kill interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Saleh confirmed that all three men believed to be linked to al-Zarqawi were picked up in operations carried out by U.S. and Iraqi forces, but he declined to say which took the lead role.
Dawoud and Saleh spoke in a convention center at the edge of the Green Zone, a heavily fortified stretch of American and Iraqi offices. Outside, rows of Bradley Fighting Vehicles waited, and Kiowa helicopters swooped low for surveillance. A tank sat beside tall concrete barriers and concertina wire.
In the distance, toward the notorious Haifa Street area, were frequent bursts of AK-47 gunfire and then the return volley of U.S. M-4 rifle fire could be heard.
As the 7 p.m. curfew grew near, Iraqis hurried home in their cars, hoping to avoid the firefights that break out with no warning.
In the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Doura, U.S. soldiers from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division shuttled between polling places and the Iraqi police station to ensure that each voting station would be guarded.
They were coordinating with four Iraqi security units, some of which were confused as to where they were supposed to be on election day.
The better-equipped Iraqi army troops were supposed to form an outer perimeter at the polling places beginning Friday night, while rifle-toting Iraqi policemen were to set up inside, U.S. officers said. But in Doura as of Friday evening, there weren't enough Iraqi soldiers to go around.
The senior police commander at a station there, Col. Abdul Karim Fahad, told U.S. soldiers that his officers were too afraid to guard polling places by themselves.
"When the dark comes," he said, "if there are no soldiers there, the Iraqi police are going to leave."
In anticipation of violence, administrators at Yarmuk Hospital in downtown Baghdad offered doctors about $240 to work on election day. Most doctors there make $130 a month.
Violence was widespread on Friday:
_Three U.S. soldiers were killed and one was wounded by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad.
_A U.S. soldier was killed in Baghdad by another bomb, and another died after being hit by small-arms fire in northern Baghdad.
_Five Iraqis were killed and seven were injured by a suicide car bomber at a power plant in Baghdad. The bomber had turned around when he saw an Abrams tank positioned at a polling site, soldiers said.
_A UH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter crashed in southwest Baghdad. Military officials said the crash didn't appear to be cause by ground fire. The status of the crew, usually two people, wasn't clear last night. The cause of Wednesday's crash of a Marine helicopter, which killed 31 U.S. troops, was still under investigation.
_al-Zarqawi's group posted a video on the Internet showing the assassination of a candidate running on Allawi's political ticket.
_In the southern town of Najaf, police caused a minor panic when they abruptly stopped traffic by noon, before the curfew was set to begin nationwide, security officials said. Officials said an overzealous police chief decided to shut the roads on his own. In some instances, police shot at cars on the streets after noon.
_Insurgents killed a police officer and wounded three others with a roadside bomb near the southern town of Basra.
_At least three schools to be used as polling sites were mortared in the town of Baiji, north of Baghdad.
The arrested al-Zarqawi lieutenants allegedly included a terrorist that al-Zarqawi had designated the "emir," or prince, of Baghdad. He was captured in Baghdad on Dec. 31.
The "emir," Salah Suleiman al-Loheibi, met with al-Zarqawi regularly, Dawoud said, and told interrogators that al-Zarqawi's organization was responsible for many of the car bombings in Baghdad.
Al-Loheibi, also known as Abu Saif, said al-Zarqawi gave the orders to kill a president of the former Iraqi Governing Council and was planning a missile attack on the offices of the interim Iraqi government, according to Dawoud.
There was no independent confirmation of those allegations, and no personal information was released about al-Loheibi, who reportedly said he was supposed to meet with an al-Zarqawi bomb-maker to discuss attacks on and around Jan. 30. The al-Zarqawi organization, Dawoud said, had acquired names of election workers and planned a campaign of intimidation.
Another alleged operative, captured in a raid west of Baghdad, met with al-Zarqawi some 40 times during the past four months and arranged meetings between him and others.
"His organization is crumbling as security forces continue their efforts to kill or capture him," Dawoud said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ken Dilanian of The Philadelphia Inquirer in Baghdad and Nancy A. Youssef of the Detroit Free Press in Najaf contributed to this report, as did special correspondents Mohammed Al Awsy and Yasser al Salihee in Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ