BAGHDAD – The U.S. military said Thursday it had captured the leaders of a Shiite insurgent network responsible for one of the boldest and most sophisticated attacks on American troops since the Iraq conflict began four years ago.
The statement said the arrests took place over the past three days in the cities of Basra and Hillah south of Baghdad. The military said the network was led by Qais Khazaali and his brother Laith Khazaali. Several other members of the network also were captured.
The network was "directly connected" to the killing in January of five American soldiers in the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, the military said.
In the Jan. 20 attack, gunmen speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons abducted four U.S. soldiers at Karbala's provincial headquarters and later shot them to death. A fifth soldier was killed during the attack.
The U.S. military, in a statement issued Jan. 26, confirmed that three of the soldiers were dead and one was mortally wounded with a gunshot to the head when they were found in a neighboring province, about 25 miles from the compound where they were captured. A fifth soldier was killed in the initial attack on the compound.
A statement issued by the U.S. military on the day of the raid said the five soldiers were killed while "repelling" the attack on the Karbala compound.
The brazen assault, was conducted by nine to 12 gunmen posing as an American security team, the military confirmed. The attackers traveled in black GMC Suburban vehicles — the type used by U.S. government convoys — had American weapons, wore new U.S. military combat fatigues, and spoke English, according to two senior U.S. military officials as well as Iraqi officials.
In an AP report Wednesday, two senior commanders from the Mahdi Army Shiite militia identified Qais al-Khazaali as the leader of up to 3,000 fighters who defected from the Mahdi Army militia and were now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Khaazli is a cleric in his early 30s. The tall and slender man was a close al-Sadr aide in 2003 and 2004. He was al-Sadr's chief spokesman for most of 2004 and made nearly daily appearances on Arabic satellite news channels. He has not been seen in public since late that year.
Outspoken and uncompromisingly anti-American, al-Khazaali was a savvy spokesman, who went out of his way to accommodate the scores of Western and Arab reporters that covered the fighting in the summer of 2004 in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad.
When al-Sadr stood to deliver the Friday sermon in a mosque in Kufa, Najaf's twin city, in the months leading up to the Najaf battles, a stern faced al-Khazaali stood motionless to the right of his leader. Both wore white shrouds over their clerical robes, suggesting their readiness for martyrdom.
In the days after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, al-Khazaali led groups of young clerics loyal to al-Sadr who protected his native Sadr City, the teeming Shiite district in eastern Baghdad, against looters and worked to restore basic services.
In Washington Wednesday, a Pentagon official who declined to be identified because of the information's sensitivity, confirmed that some gunmen had gone to Iran for training and that al-Khazaali has a following. However, the official could not confirm the number of his followers or whether Iran was financing them.
The two Mahdi Army commanders blamed several recent attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Baghdad on the splinter group they said was led by al-Khazaali. They also said they believed the breakaway force had organized the attempt last week to kill Rahim al-Darraji, Sadr City's mayor.
Al-Darraji, who is close to the Sadrist movement, was involved in talks with the U.S. military about extending the five-week-old Baghdad security sweep into Sadr City, the Mahdi Army stronghold in eastern Baghdad that was a no-go zone for American forces until about three weeks ago.
Al-Darraji was seriously wounded and two of his bodyguards were killed
Complete coverage is available in FOXNews.com's Iraq Center.