MOSUL, Iraq – American forces have captured three members of Usama bin Laden's terrorist network in northern Iraq, a U.S. military commander told The Associated Press. If confirmed, it would be the first disclosed detention of Al Qaeda (search) militants in Iraq.
About 10 members of Ansar al-Islam (search) -- an Islamic group U.S. officials believe has Al Qaeda links in northern Iraq -- also have been arrested by U.S. troops in the past seven months, Col. Joe Anderson, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said on Sunday.
Asked if troops had captured members of Al Qaeda, Anderson -- whose brigade controls Mosul (search) -- replied: "Three, two weeks ago."
Anderson said he believed the captured Al Qaeda men were Iraqi nationals, who had been transferred to Baghdad for further interrogation.
"We take them, we process them through a detention facility .... and if all the facts wind up they go to Baghdad and once they go south that's the last I ever hear from them," he told AP in an interview.
It was not immediately possible to confirm the captures.
In recent months, U.S. forces in central Iraq have detained a handful of people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda, but American intelligence officials described them as mostly low-level operatives with unclear purposes in the country.
The Bush administration has asserted that bin Laden's terrorist network maintained links with the government of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But U.S. authorities searching Iraq since the invasion, have said they have found little that would suggest links between the two.
On Saturday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said that although the United States suspects members of the network have taken part in attacks on coalition and civilian targets in Iraq, there is no conclusive evidence of its involvement.
"We still haven't conclusively established an Al Qaeda operative in this country," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told reporters in Baghdad.
Anderson said an array of anti-U.S. groups operate in northern Iraq.
"There are cells of different types here that we keep reading through and capturing," he said. "You know, we've got the former regime loyalists, the Baath Party type groups, the Fedayeen groups, we have the AI (Ansar al-Islam), we have the AQ (Al Qaeda) we have the Wahabis. Now the questions is how big and how many there are."
The Fedayeen were one of Saddam's prewar irregular militias, and Wahabis are followers of an austere brand of Sunni Islam practiced mostly in Saudi Arabia.
Mosul, Iraq's third largest city that is home to 1.7 million people, has different ethnic groups such as Arabs, Kurds, Turkman and Assyrians.
The city was known to be quiet after the fall of Iraq in the hands of the U.S.-led coalition in April but in recent weeks attacks have been on the rise. At least 20 American soldiers were killed in Mosul in November.
Anderson also said that the Nov. 15 collision of two Black Hawk helicopters in Mosul -- the single deadliest incident of the war for American forces -- may have been caused by enemy fire.
"It appears to be that one helicopter was hit by a (rocket-propelled grenade)," Anderson said. The soldiers who died were from the 101st, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Until now, the military has declined to publicly disclose a possible cause of the collision, which killed 17 soldiers. But numerous officers have privately said the crash was almost certainly caused by enemy fire.
Ground fire apparently caused one Black Hawk to slam into the other, although the incident is still under investigation, Anderson said.
At the time of the collision, Iraqi police officers in Mosul also said at least one of the Black Hawks was hit by ground fire.