From Newsday

Zarqawi kin reportedly bombed shrine in Iraq

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's father-in-law carried out a suicide bombing in the Shia holy city of Najaf that killed a leading Iraqi cleric, according to two senior Kurdish intelligence officials.

The attack in August 2003 killed more than 85 people, including Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, who led Iraq's largest Shia political party. The bombing was carried out with an explosives-laden ambulance driven by Yassin Jarad, the father of al-Zarqawi's second wife, the Kurdish officials said.

Jarad had slipped into Iraq several weeks before the bombing from the Jordanian town of Zarqa, where al-Zarqawi was born, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. At least a dozen other suicide bombers from al-Zarqawi's hometown have infiltrated Iraq over the past 18 months, the officials said.

Details of the Najaf bombing emerged in recent weeks during interrogations of three top al-Zarqawi associates captured by Iraqi and U.S. forces, the officials said. The involvement of a close al-Zarqawi relative in a major suicide attack highlights the difficulties of capturing Iraq's most wanted man.

"This shows how loyal the people surrounding al-Zarqawi are to him," said one of the officials. "They are clearly willing to die for him."

But the level of detail being provided to interrogators by al-Zarqawi's operatives suggests Iraqi and U.S. officials are closing in on the militant and unraveling some of his security procedures.

"We are getting close to finishing off al-Zarqawi and we will get rid of him," Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, told a Jan. 27 news conference in Baghdad.

One of al-Zarqawi's top lieutenants, Abu Omar al-Kurdi, who was captured in a Jan. 15 raid in Baghdad, has provided detailed information about his boss' movements, hiding places and communication methods, the intelligence officials said. Two other aides arrested in January also have been providing information: Anad Mohammed Qais, a top military adviser, and Salah Suleiman Loheibi, head of al-Zarqawi's Baghdad operations.

In September or October, the Kurdish officials said, al-Zarqawi smuggled his second wife and their children from Jordan to Iraq, apparently fearing Jordanian authorities might arrest them. He also was worried about retaliation from Iraqi Shias -- especially the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the group once led by al-Hakim -- in case his father-in-law's role in the bombing became public.

Al-Zarqawi's first wife and her children were already safely hidden in Iraq, according to the officials, who noted that the movement of family members demonstrates the sophisticated level of security and logistical preparations put in place by al-Zarqawi.

"He is not just making security arrangements for himself, but also for his wives and children," said one of the officials. "To me, this shows how comfortable and confident he is that he won't be captured."

The officials speculated that al-Zarqawi moves around alone much of the time and keeps his two wives and children in separate hideouts. The officials said those safe houses are most likely around the northern city of Mosul or in Anbar province, a vast region that borders Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Anbar also includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

"I don't think that his family members are on the run with him," one official said.

Al-Zarqawi has claimed responsibility -- or has been blamed by U.S. and Iraqi officials -- for a majority of the bloodiest suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners in Iraq over the past year. U.S. officials say he is masterminding a terror network in Iraq at the behest of Osama bin Laden, but al-Zarqawi has shown a tendency to operate independently through his Tawhid wa Jihad ("Monotheism and Holy War") group and other militant networks.

In July, U.S. officials raised the reward for information leading to al-Zarqawi's arrest or killing to $25 million -- equal to the bounty on bin Laden's head. The Bush administration has consistently labeled al-Zarqawi as the main force behind the Iraqi insurgency. To some Iraqis, the U.S. focus on al-Zarqawi is part of a political strategy to portray the insurgency as driven by Islamic militants and foreigners.

Before invading Iraq in March 2003, Washington argued that al-Zarqawi was a top lieutenant of bin Laden. U.S. officials said al-Zarqawi had taken refuge in Baghdad and was a major link between Saddam Hussein's regime and bin Laden's al-Qaida network. But that assertion has never been proved, and there are doubts about al-Zarqawi's relationship with Hussein's government.

Al-Zarqawi, a militant from the Sunni branch of Islam, has specifically targeted leaders of Iraq's Shia majority in hopes of heightening sectarian tensions. The August 2003 bombing in Najaf was particularly devastating in its scope and because it deprived the Shia community of al-Hakim, a key cleric and political leader. The bombing took place outside Shiism's holiest shrine just as the ayatollah was leaving Friday prayers.

Several months after the attack, al-Zarqawi circulated an audiotape in which he praised the assassination. "God has honored us by killing al-Hakim, who was devious and treacherous and an enemy of true Muslims," al-Zarqawi said. "Let the world know that, with God's assistance, we are going to kill the heretics' imams and wipe them all out."

After al-Hakim's killing, his younger brother, Abdulaziz, assumed control of the Supreme Council. Abdulaziz al-Hakim led the main slate of Shia candidates in last week's parliamentary election.

One of the Kurdish officials said the bomb that killed the ayatollah was built by al-Kurdi, "the most lethal" of al-Zarqawi's lieutenants. The official noted that, after al-Kurdi's capture, al-Zarqawi likely changed his hideouts and communication procedures. "He is taking new precautions," the official said. "He knows that his security has been compromised."

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