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U.S. steps up search for Jordanian suspected in postwar attacks

BAGHDAD, Iraq—He can look as harmless as a schoolteacher, clean-shaven and bespectacled. He has dressed as a tribesman, with a mustache and traditional red-checkered headdress. Sometimes, he grows his beard and wears the skullcap favored by students of Islam.

These are among the many disguises of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a one-legged Jordanian who arguably is now the most wanted man in Iraq.

He's not yet a household name here, but his handiwork is notorious across the globe, U.S. officials say—from deadly bombings in Turkey and Morocco to the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan.

Now he is operating in Iraq, the chief suspect in a pair of bombings that killed 100 Iraqis in 24 hours last week and the apparent author of a letter purportedly to Osama bin Laden that boasts of 25 other suicide missions and promises "to spark war and bring the people of this country into a real battle with God's will."

Last week, coalition officials boosted the bounty on his head to $10 million, and there are indications that a U.S. Special Forces team has been formed to kill or capture him.

His many faces appear on "Wanted" signs that are part of a nationwide information campaign. The coalition has even added a new card to its deck of the top 55 fugitives from Saddam Hussein's regime.

Zarqawi is the wild card.

"Every soldier in Iraq is looking for Zarqawi," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad. "We have significant capabilities that run the gamut from high-intensity operations all the way down to special operations teams. We're confident he's still in Iraq."

With the help of bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the militant Kurdish group Ansar al Islam, Zarqawi is probably behind some of the most devastating attacks in postwar Iraq, coalition officials say. His name quickly surfaced in the investigations of the August bombing of the United Nations compound in Baghdad, and, two weeks later, in a similar suicide attack that killed more than 100 worshippers after Friday prayers at a Shiite Muslim shrine south of the capital.

"He is one of the single biggest obstacles to the security and stability of not only Iraq but of the whole world," said a senior Iraqi interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's a criminal and he will meet the same end as other criminals."

So far, coalition officials have presented little hard evidence to back their allegations. But they said they are confident Zarqawi is still in Iraq and receiving help from locals who resent the U.S.-led occupation.

"It's sad to recognize that in fact the terrorist networks have to find sanctuary, they have to find support and they have to find equipment in their place of operation." Kimmitt said. "That happens to be the country of Iraq in this case."

Zarqawi, 37, was born Ahmad Fadeel Nazzal al Khalayleh, but goes by a last name derived from his hometown of Zarqa, Jordan. He first dabbled in militancy in Afghanistan in the late 1980s when he joined the fight against the occupying Soviet army, coalition officials say.

Zarqawi's family has said he returned to Jordan in 1992, but grew frustrated when he couldn't find a job. He spent six years in a Jordanian prison on charges that he plotted to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with an Islamic theocracy, according to coalition accounts and news reports.

He was released in the late 1990s and fled Jordan just before authorities there charged him with a foiled gas attack on American and Israeli tourists during a millennium celebration at a hotel in Amman. Kimmitt, the military spokesman, said Zarqawi's next stop was Afghanistan, where he reportedly became close to bin Laden, oversaw a training camp and developed an expertise in poison gas.

Kimmitt said Zarqawi was severely wounded in the U.S.-led war that ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan two years ago. He traveled to Iran, but soon ended up in Baghdad.

The Baghdad hospital where Zarqawi recovered from the amputation of his leg is now a combat support hospital for wounded U.S. soldiers, Kimmitt said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell last year cited Zarqawi's medical treatment in Baghdad as a link between al-Qaida and the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

At the time, U.S. officials deemed Zarqawi one of the top eight al-Qaida operations chiefs, though military officials in Baghdad now say they are not sure how deeply Zarqawi is connected to the network.

"Did Zarqawi have contacts with al-Qaida? Yes," said one intelligence officer who's familiar with the reporting on Zarqawi, Iraq and al-Qaida, but who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the intelligence reports are classified. "Did he also have contact with members of the Baathist regime in Baghdad? Almost certainly. Does that prove he was a link in some kind of active cooperation between Iraq and bin Laden? Not at all. The evidence suggests that it was Saddam's downfall that created the opportunity for al-Qaida to operate in Iraq."

In addition to the Iraq attacks, Zarqawi is wanted for planning or executing terrorist strikes in Germany, Israel, Turkey, Morocco and several other countries. Last year, Jordanian officials said he was the mastermind behind the murder of Laurence Foley, the administrator of U.S. aid programs in Jordan.

Now outfitted with a prosthetic leg, Zarqawi is roaming Iraq for recruits and plotting more attacks, coalition officials say. Remnants of a terrorist group he led in Syria and Jordan, the Jund al Shams brigade, are operating in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, they added.

Kimmitt said the coalition zeroed in on Zarqawi after the interception last month of his "blueprint for terror in Iraq," the letter Zarqawi supposedly wrote to bin Laden. The found it when they captured a Pakistani in northern Iraq with ties to the Ansar al Islam terrorist group.

In coming weeks, towns across Iraq will be papered with excerpts from the letter and a description of recent attacks. Photos of Zarqawi are on bumper stickers next to promises of the $10 million reward for turning him in.

"We hope this will be a nationwide campaign so that everybody has an opportunity to see what Zarqawi has done and is capable of doing," Kimmitt said. "And to have every Iraqi and every coalition force feel they are part of the hunt."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent John Walcott in Washington contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ZARQAWI


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