BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's top Al Qaeda (search) terrorist, angered by a postelection lull in violence, ordered insurgents a month ago to intensify attacks and his lieutenants began plotting their deadly mission during a secret meeting in Syria (search), a top U.S. military official said Wednesday.
The Syrian meeting, possibly attended by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) himself, has led to one of the bloodiest periods since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago. Nearly 500 people have been killed — including an Iraqi general mowed down in a driveby shooting Wednesday — since the country's new Shiite-dominated government was announced April 28.
Several Shiite and Sunni Muslim clerics were among the victims, raising fears that sectarian tensions could ignite a civil war.
A chilling, rambling Internet audiotape purportedly by al-Zarqawi denounced Iraq's Shiites as U.S. collaborators and said killing them is justified.
"God ordered us to attack the infidels by all means ... even if armed infidels and unintended victims — women and children — are killed together," said the speaker purported to be al-Zarqawi. "The priority is for jihad so anything that slows down jihad should be overcome." The tape could not immediately be authenticated.
The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi and his key militant leadership have met at least five times in foreign countries during the conflict, most recently during the past 30 days in Syria, according to the senior U.S. military official, who briefed reporters on condition he not be named.
He did not identify the other countries but said neighboring Iran, a Shiite theocracy, was not one of them.
He said the military obtained information during questioning of insurgent prisoners, from Iraqi military sources and field intelligence in determining that the most recent meeting had taken place in Syria.
The Syrian foreign and information ministries were unavailable for comment on the alleged terrorist gathering on their soil. Iraq's presidential adviser for security affairs, Gen. Wafiq al-Samarie, said he had "no information" about an al-Zarqawi meeting in Syria.
Syrian political analyst Imad Fawzi al-Shueibi, who is close to the Damascus government, dismissed the report as "part of an organized campaign against Syria."
"Syria has no interest in [helping] al-Zarqawi," al-Shueibi said. "If al-Zarqawi and his group win in Iraq, they will turn the region into a fundamentalist nightmare."
The United States, at the highest leadership levels, repeatedly has demanded that Syria do more to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq across their porous 380-mile-long border.
At least one report suggested al-Zarqawi himself attended the talks, the U.S. official said.
"He [al-Zarqawi] allegedly was not happy with how the insurgency was going, the government was getting stronger and coalition forces not being defeated," the official said. "Some intelligence reports from captives showed that al-Zarqawi directed people to start using more vehicle-borne devices and [to] use them in everyday operations."
In response to al-Zarqawi's call, there had been 21 car bombings in Baghdad during May, compared with 25 such attacks in all of 2004, the official said. Nearly 130 car bombs have exploded or been defused since late February, he said.
In one of the latest bombings, all that was found of the attacker was his foot taped to the car's accelerator, the official said, indicating he'd been forced to carry out the mission.
"The spike [in violence] is a result of the meeting in Syria," the official said. "The folks are listening to what he said."
Despite marked increases in car and roadside bombings, the official said other forms of violence have declined in recent months. "They [the insurgents] are trying to get ready to build up again," he warned.
In Washington, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he couldn't confirm or deny reports that the meeting had occurred but noted that "insurgent-inspired" activities are "clearly" taking place in Syria — though without Syrian government collusion.
"It's very important that the Syrian government do everything within its power to keep violence from migrating or being planned in Syria into Iraq," Abizaid said on Capitol Hill. Asked if he thought Damascus was doing enough, he replied: "No, I do not think the Syrian government is doing enough."
During a recent weeklong offensive near the Syrian border, more than 1,000 U.S. forces killed 125 al-Zarqawi-linked insurgents, the military said. Nine U.S. Marines died in the campaign that targeted ancient smuggling routes crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border, believed to be now used for slipping foreign fighters and weapons into the country.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blamed Syria on Monday for complicating efforts by Iraq's new government to quell violence and appealed to Syria's Arab neighbors to force Damascus to close its borders.
Al-Zarqawi is Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, responsible for beheadings, assassinations and spectacular bombings, and has a $25 million bounty on his head — the same as for Usama bin Laden.
A chilling, rambling Internet audiotape purportedly by al-Zarqawi and posted Wednesday denounced Iraq's Shiites as U.S. collaborators and called this country's leaders traitors to Islam.
"What Sunnis have suffered and are still suffering from the Shiites is far worse than what they saw from the Americans," said the speaker purported to be al-Zarqawi.
Al Qaeda in Iraq also released a statement claiming responsibility for Wednesday's drive-by killing of police Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Khamas in Baghdad. Khamas' wife and driver were wounded, said police Col. Nouri Abdullah. The Internet statement's authenticity was unclear.
Harith al-Dhari, head of Iraq's influential Sunni Muslim Association of Muslim Scholars, blamed the recent killings of Sunni clerics on the Badr Brigades, the militia of Iraq's leading Shiite group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Brigade general secretary Hadi al-Amri denied the charge and said the Sunni association wanted to "push Iraq into a sectarian conflict."
Also Wednesday, U.S. 3rd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. William G. Webster said American forces will train Iraqi security personnel to better handle prisoners after reports that some local police and commandos mistreated detainees.
"American military authorities investigate every abuse they learn about and are training Iraqi security forces to better deal with detainees," said Webster, who controls coalition forces in Baghdad.
Among those to undergo training will be the feared Wolf Brigade, an elite Interior Ministry force Sunni clerics accuse of killing Sunnis. Iraqi authorities deny such claims.
— Gunmen killed Transport Ministry driver Ali Mutib Sakr in Sadr City, a Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad, police Lt. Col. Shakir Wadi said.
— In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, insurgent mortar attacks killed two Iraqis and injured eight others, including seven schoolchildren, police and hospital officials said.
— Iraqi soldiers discovered the bodies of seven men, blindfolded and shot in the head, dumped in the Sunni Triangle town of Amiriyah, 25 miles west of Baghdad, said Dr. Mohammed al-Ani at Ramadi hospital. More than 60 bodies, many with execution-style gunshot wounds to the head, have been found across Iraq in recent days.