BAGHDAD, Iraq – The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq warned Thursday that Usama bin Laden's (search) Al Qaeda network was trying to gain a foothold here, citing the arrest of an operative who reported directly to one of the Sept. 11 masterminds.
U.S. military officials have generally played down the role of foreign or Al Qaeda (search) fighters, but Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search) indicated that idea may be changing with the arrest of Hassan Ghul, a top Al Qaeda operative.
"The capture of Ghul is pretty strong proof that Al Qaeda is trying to gain a foothold here to continue their murderous campaigns," Sanchez said.
Ghul was arrested by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces while trying to enter Iraq from Iran. Officials in Washington reported his arrest Saturday, describing him as a senior recruiter for Al Qaeda who reported directly to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), one of the architects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks who was captured in March.
Sanchez refused to say whether U.S. intelligence has identified active Al Qaeda cells in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq. But he said "their tactics, their techniques, their procedures have been here for a while," a reference to car bombings and suicide attacks.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said the arrest bolstered claims he made last February in an address to the U.N. Security Council urging action against Iraq.
"It's one individual; I don't know that it is definitive in and of itself," Powell said. "But I think his apprehension substantiates the kind of statements that we made ... that here was this potential connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein."
News of the arrest came the day after a homicide bomber detonated a van disguised as an ambulance outside a Baghdad hotel, killing himself and three others.
U.S. military officials here have said most of the attacks against U.S. and coalition forces are carried out by remnants of Saddam's regime. Sanchez said U.S. intelligence has been unable to identify the nationalities of suicide bombers.
Sanchez said U.S. authorities believe religious extremists may be linking up with pro-Saddam elements "and we believe there are some efforts to strengthen those linkages."
Many of the victims of recent attacks have been Iraqis seen as collaborating with the U.S.-led occupation. Eleven Iraqis, mostly members of the civil defense corps, were wounded Thursday in a roadside bombing in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad.
Also Thursday, many shopkeepers in Ramadi, a pro-Saddam city west of Baghdad, reported receiving leaflets warning Iraqis to stop working for or with Americans within 10 days or face death.
The pamphlets specifically named 29 Ramadi residents, mostly translators and local officials, describing them as traitors. The undated statement was signed by a previously unknown group, "Anbar Mujahedeen Brigade, the Military Unit." Anbar is the province that includes Ramadi.
A United Nations team arrived this week in Baghdad to determine whether it was safe for other U.N. officials to come to Iraq to study prospects for early legislative elections as demanded by the leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search).
U.S. officials fear early elections could lead to greater violence. Instead they want members of a new legislature to be named in regional caucuses. The legislature would in turn choose a new government to take power by July 1, formally ending the U.S.-led occupation.