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Attacks blamed on suspected terrorist

WASHINGTON—"There is no doubt" that suspected Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi masterminded the pair of suicide bombings in Iraq on Tuesday that killed more than 140 people during a Shiite Muslim religious observance, Gen. John Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday.

Abizaid, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, said the bombings showed a level of sophistication and coordination not previously seen in a string of deadly bombings that have occurred in Iraq since last summer. He said at least six suicide bombers were involved in the attacks, which occurred less than four minutes apart at shrines in Karbala and Baghdad.

"The level of organization and the desire to cause casualties among innocent worshippers is a clear hallmark of the Zarqawi network," Abizaid said.

Later, he told reporters: "I personally believe there is no doubt that Zarqawi is behind this."

U.S. officials last month released a letter they said was written by Zarqawi to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden calling for attacks on Shiites to foment a civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Nearly all of Tuesday's victims were Shiites.

Abizaid also told reporters that the perpetrators of Tuesday's bombings intended to blame the attacks on U.S. forces. Leaflets found shortly after the Baghdad explosions claimed that U.S. forces had fired mortars into the crowd, he said.

Abizaid also said U.S. forces received intelligence before Tuesday's bombings indicating that an attack was imminent, though none of it was specific.

"None of it was good enough to say when it would happen, where it would happen or how it would happen," he said.

But it allowed U.S. commandos to carry out a successful raid on Zarqawi "network operatives" the night before, which prevented further carnage, he said, including thwarting planned suicide car bombing in the southern city of Basra.

"There is no doubt that we disrupted a planned attack even greater" than those that occurred in Karbala and Baghdad, he said.

Abizaid said the targets of the attacks were "several prominent Shiite personalities," though he declined to specify who. He said coalition forces have intelligence showing "some linkage" between Zarqawi and members of Saddam Hussein's former intelligence services.

"Clearly, not only are they targeting the Shia community in an effort to foment civil war—there is no doubt about it," he said. "They are targeting Shia leaders, Sunni leaders and any leader that will emerge in a leadership role in the new Iraq. What the terrorists fear is that a government of moderation will emerge in the new Iraq that allows Iraqis to develop a better future. They will fight every step of the way to prevent this from happening."

Abizaid, who has overall command of U.S. troops in Iraq, also warned of growing cooperation between Sunni Muslim extremists and members of Saddam Hussein's former intelligence services seeking to foment civil war between Iraq's religious and ethnic factions before a planned handover of power June 30 to Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council.

U.S. forces placed a $10 million bounty on Zarqawi last month and blame him for a recent wave of bombings in Iraq that has taken hundreds of lives. Zarqawi has been described by the Bush administration as an al-Qaida "associate" though it appears he's operating independently of al-Qaida's chief.


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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Abizaid