Suspected mastermind vows to kill Iraq PM
The suspected mastermind of beheadings and bombings threatened to assassinate Iraq's prime minister, and U.S. officials claimed Wednesday that an airstrike against a hideout of the al-Qaida-linked militant killed up to 20 of his followers.
Militants focused their anger on Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his government - the latest sign that the campaign of insurgent violence against the U.S. occupation is unlikely to end with the June 30 handover of power.
Another group warned Allawi against imposing martial law in parts of Iraq, or else they would "strike with God's might."
Al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for the beheading of American hostage Nicholas Berg last month and Kim Sun-il, a South Korean whose decapitated body was found Tuesday.
Hours after Kim's body was found, the U.S. military launched its second attack against al-Zarqawi in three days, with an airstrike on Fallujah late Tuesday.
A coalition military official said 20 foreign fighters and terrorists were believed to have been killed in the strike against a house used by al-Zarqawi's group.
Fallujah residents said the strike hit a parking lot, killing three people and wounding nine, according to hospital officials.
The al-Zarqawi recording warned Allawi that he had already survived "traps that we made for you" but vowed that the group would continue planning his assassination "until we make you drink from the same glass as Izzadine Saleem," the Governing Council president killed by a car bomb last month.
There was no way to authenticate the recording, but the voice sounded like al-Zarqawi, whose Tawhid and Jihad movement has been blamed for many of the bombings and assassinations that have killed hundreds of people, most of them Iraqis, in recent months.
The CIA was reviewing the tape.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, Allawi dismissed al-Zarqawi as a criminal who would be caught and punished.
"Abu Musab al-Zarqawi doesn't threaten just me, but the entire country," Allawi told the newspaper, which released a copy of the interview Wednesday night.
"He has killed hundreds of Iraqis, has sown disorder and fear," Allawi was quoted as saying. "But he is just a criminal who must be captured and tried. We are used to threats and we know how to deal with them and how to win."
In an interview Wednesday with Associated Press Television News, U.S. Brig Gen. Mark Kimmitt said many of the major attacks in Iraq are carried out by al-Zarqawi's forces, while former regime supporters are responsible for smaller assaults.
"He is a very, very crafty leader of a large network that is conducting terrorist operations inside this country," Kimmitt said. "The people of Iraq must understand they have a responsibility. They bear a responsibility to making sure we take Zarqawi and his network off of the street."
Al-Zarqawi's group killed Kim, a 33-year-old South Korean, after the Seoul government rejected its demands to withdraw troops from Iraq. His body was dumped on a road between Baghdad and Fallujah, a hotbed of Islamic extremism.
Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, said Kim's killing violated Iraqi and Islamic tradition and "completely tarnishes Iraq.
"How could we rebuild our country if we can't guarantee the safety of people who come to help build our country," al-Yawer said on the U.S.-funded TV station Al-Iraqiya.
Allawi told reporters Sunday that his government was considering martial rule in certain areas to restore order.
A group of masked militants claiming to represent resistance groups in Iraq warned against that step in a video aired Wednesday night on Al-Arabiya television.
They said they would "strike with God's might" if Allawi imposed emergency rule on behalf of the "occupation masters."
U.S. and Iraqi officials are bracing for stepped up violence ahead of the June 30 transfer of sovereignty, which marks the formal end of the U.S.-led occupation.
Nevertheless, U.S. and Iraqi officials say the handover schedule is on track. On Thursday, a ceremony is planned to mark the official transfer of the final 11 ministries to Iraqi control - including the defense, interior, justice and electricity ministries. Iraqis have already taken over the running of the other 15 ministries.
The military said insurgents staged at least six attacks on American convoys throughout Iraq on Wednesday, wounding one U.S. soldier and a civilian contractor.
Late Wednesday, insurgents hurled a hand grenade at the newly refurbished Iraqi Transportation Ministry, then engaged in a 10-minute gunbattle with security guards, injuring at least one, residents said.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb in Baghdad killed a policeman, a woman and her child, Iraqi police said.
Another roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul killed one Iraqi soldier and wounded four others. In Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 60 miles west of Baghdad, gunmen killed two policemen and wounded a third in a drive-by shooting, witnesses said.