Anbar Leader Killed in Iraq; Saddam Trial Set

Published May 31, 2005

| Associated Press

The kidnapped governor of volatile Anbar province (search) was found dead after a fierce battle between U.S. forces and foreign fighters, a government spokesman said Tuesday.

In Washington, President Bush said Baghdad's fledgling leadership is "plenty capable" of defeating insurgents whose attacks on Iraqis and U.S. soldiers have intensified since the new Shiite-led government was announced April 28.

"I think the Iraqi people dealt the insurgents a serious blow when we had the elections," Bush said at a news conference. "In other words, what the insurgents fear is democracy because democracy is the opposition of their vision."

The insurgency, which is believed to be strongly backed by radical Sunni extremists, has killed more than 760 people in the past month.

Vice President Dick Cheney (search) predicted that fighting in Iraq will end before the Bush administration leaves office in 2009.

"I think we may well have some kind of presence there over a period of time," Cheney said Monday in a televised interview. "The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

The body of the governor of Anbar province, Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi, was found Sunday in Rawah, about 175 miles northwest of Baghdad, said government spokesman Laith Kuba.

Al-Mahalawi, who was abducted May 10 near Qaim, a town near the Syrian border, was killed by rubble that fell when the house where he was held became the focus of the gunbattle between U.S. forces and foreign fighters, Kuba said.

The confirmation of al-Mahalawi's death ended a lingering mystery surrounding his whereabouts. Relatives and a government official said May 15 that al-Mahalawi's kidnappers released him, but U.S. military officials maintained he had not been seen until his body was discovered Sunday.

Kuba said al-Mahalawi had never been released, but instead had been handed from one terrorist cell to another.

Maj. Wes Hayes, a military spokesman, said Sunday's battle began after foreign fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at coalition forces from a house. Coalition troops returned fire, killing four foreign fighters and wounding three others, and then found the body of al-Mahalawi, which had been chained to a propane tank and had suffered a blow to the head, he said.

Al-Mahalawi's body was taken Monday to Qaim, where his family identified him.

The kidnappers had previously told his family they were holding him until American forces left Qaim, the scene of Operation Matador, a weeklong U.S. offensive targeting insurgents 200 miles west of Baghdad.

U.S. forces killed about 140 militants, mostly in and around Qaim, during its two military offensives in western Iraq in May. A total of 11 Marines were killed in the campaigns near the Iraqi-Syrian border.

In an audio tape purportedly of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent leader said Qaim "was the battlefield where the youth of Mohammed have proved their valiance after 10 days of fighting."

"It was one of the greatest battles of Islam," the speaker said, addressing Usama bin Laden. "Our dear emir, if you want to know our news, we would like to assure you that we are continuing on the path of jihad, we are committed to our pledge. We will either win or die trying."

In the recording, carried by a Web site frequently used by militant Islamic groups, the voice purportedly belonging to al-Zarqawi addressed reports that he had been injured in battle, and he said he suffered only "a light wound, thank God."

A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, "We believe the tape to be authentic."

Four Italian troops were killed overnight in the crash of the Italian AB-412 helicopter that spokesman Lt. Col. Fabio Mattiassi told the ANSA news agency was likely an accident.

The helicopter went down about eight miles southeast of Nasiriyah, killing its two pilots and two passengers, all attached to the army, Mattiassi said. Most of Italy's 3,000 troops are based in Nasiriyah, and 25 have been killed.

A day earlier, an Iraqi single-engine plane crashed near Jalula, about 80 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing the four Americans and the Iraqi pilot, said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Fred Wellman. The aircraft, one of seven used by the Iraqi air force for surveillance and personnel transport, was heading to Jalula from a Kirkuk air base, the military said.

In addition, a U.S. Marine was killed Monday in fighting with insurgents near the city of Ramadi in western Iraq, the military said Tuesday.

At least 1,662 U.S. military personnel have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In new violence, gunmen killed Jerges Mohammed Sultan, a journalist for Iraqi state TV channel Al-Iraqiya, in the northern city of Mosul, said Dr. Baha-aldin al-Bakri of al-Jumhouri hospital. Insurgents have targeted both the station and its employees.

A car bomber killed two Iraqi soldiers at an army checkpoint near Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, said Diyala provincial police spokesman Ali Fadhil.

Five gunmen fired from a car on a police patrol in eastern Baghdad's Doura district, wounding four policemen, Capt. Firas Qaiti said.

Residents of Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, found the bullet-riddled bodies of four Iraqi soldiers who served under Saddam Hussein and had been kidnapped last week, one of the victim's relatives said.

In Baghdad, the anti-insurgent campaign known as Operation Lightning was in its third day, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari praised its success. The operation, in which more than 40,000 Iraqi security forces are to be deployed, aims to rid the capital of militants and, in particular, car bombers.

"We have so far achieved good results and rounded up a large number of saboteurs, some are Iraqis and some are non-Iraqis," al-Jaafari said without elaborating.

On Monday in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, at least 27 policemen were killed and 118 wounded after two bombers struck as hundreds of commandos protested a government move to disband their special forces unit.

In an apparent claim of responsibility, Al Qaeda in Iraq purportedly said in an Internet statement that one of its members attacked "a group of special Iraqi forces." The same group claimed responsibility for a Feb. 28 attack on police recruits in Hillah that killed 125 people.

Militants regard Iraqi security forces as prime targets in their campaign against the U.S. military, which hinges its eventual exit from Iraq on the ability of local soldiers and police to protect the country.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, meanwhile, said in a televised interview that authorities expected to put Saddam on trial in the next two months.

Saddam's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, expressed surprise at Talabani's comment.

"I was not informed officially that they are speeding up the trial, but any way I will check," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Speaking in English, Talabani told a cable news network he would have to await the outcome of the trial process, "but the Iraqi people from now are starting to ask for executing Saddam Hussein and for sentencing him for death."

"Saddam Hussein is a war criminal," Talabani said in his office in Doukan, in northern Iraq, noting that the ousted leader had committed "crimes against Iraqi people" in Kurdistan as well as Shiite areas of southern Iraq and in Baghdad.

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