2 Key Terror Aides Caught In Iraq

Police uncovered more bodies under the rubble Saturday after a gas tanker exploded in Baghdad, bringing the death toll from the attack to at least nine, while the U.S. Marines said they captured two cell leaders loyal to Iraq's most wanted terrorist.

The butane truck, which had been wired with explosives, blew up Friday night in the upscale Mansour district, hours after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld left the capital following a surprise one-day visit to Iraq. Police said it was likely a suicide attack.

Marines said Saturday that they captured two key leaders of a local cell claiming affiliation with Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq network.

The leathernecks said in a statement that the two "were cell leaders for a local Zarqawi-affiliated terrorist group that is operating" in western al Anbar province, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and is a hotbed of the insurgency.
The statement said the cell "kidnapped and executed 11 Iraqi National Guardsmen," carried out car bombings and other attacks in the Ramadi area and "smuggled foreign terrorists into the country."

Also Saturday, a roadside bomb blew up as a bus carrying members of the Iraqi National Guard was passing. Witnesses said there were casualties, but no clear numbers emerged in the indident's immediate aftermath.

In other developments:

  • Only a few Iraqi Christians showed up to celebrate Mass in Baghdad's churches on Saturday because of fears that Islamic militants could launch attacks to coincide with the holiday.
  • A female member of Iraq's interim National Assembly was found dead on Saturday after being kidnapped three days ago, medics said. Wijdan Al-Khuzaie was kidnapped by unidentified persons in front of her house in western Baghdad.
  • A a car bomb exploded as a U.S. military convoy was passing in the southern town of Ein al-Nus Saturday, killing three Iraqis and wounding two, police said.
  • Gunmen on Saturday shot dead Hasan Abdul-Ghani al-Rubaei, a professor at Baghdad University's medical school, as he drove his car along the dangerous Haifa street where militants often launch attacks. A spokesman at Baghdad's Karkh Hospital said al-Rubaei was shot in the head twice.

    Police have arrested six men suspected of organizing last week's explosion in the Shiite holy city of Najaf that killed more than 50 people. Authorities did not release their identities or nationalities but say the six were members of a "terrorist cell." The area's governor also says authorities have identified the individual who carried out the December 19th bombing and the group he belongs to.

  • David Letterman took his late-night show to Marines serving in Iraq on Friday, loosening up the Camp Taqaddum crowd with the line, "Anybody here from out of town?" Another hit line: ""If I wanted to face insurgents I would've spent Christmas with my relatives."
  • A roadside bomb exploded Saturday near the car of the governor of eastern Diyala province wounding four of his guards, officials said. Governor Abdullah Rashid al-Jbouri was unharmed in by the blast in the town of Khan Bani Saad, halfway between Baqouba and Baghdad.
  • Video footage aired Saturday on Turkish televisions showed a Turkish ship owner, one of Turkey's richest businessmen, saying he and another man were being held hostage in Iraq. Kahraman Sadikoglu and ship captain Ahmet Yurtdas are believed to have been kidnapped on Dec. 16 after leaving the southern city of Basra. It was not clear who was holding the men and there was no mention of any demands.

    Security forces initially said two people were killed in the Baghdad tanker explosion. But spokesman Lt. Col. Raed Abbas said seven more bodies were discovered on Saturday underneath the rubble of one of the three houses destroyed in the blast. The Mansour district houses many foreign missions and is home to top Iraqi government officials.

    At least 14 people were seriously wounded. In the nearby al-Yarmouk Hospital, several of the injured with burn blisters on their blackened faces and limbs cried and shivered in pain.

    A witness to the blast, who identified himself as Abdel Imam, told reporters that the gas truck drove at high speed into the Mansour district with its lights turned off moments before its driver triggered the detonation. He said "a whole family" perished under the rubble of one of the houses demolished in the blast.

    There were no members of the multinational forces among the casualties, said Capt. Brian Lucas, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. There were no injuries inside the embassies.

    Rumsfeld's tour in Iraq took him to Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit and the heavily barricaded Green Zone in Baghdad — he did not visit the Mansour area. Throughout his meetings with U.S. troops, he insisted that the insurgency that plagued the country for months would be defeated.

    Violence has escalated across Iraq even after the U.S. offensive in Fallujah last month that overran the guerrillas' main stronghold.

    On Tuesday, insurgents in Mosul, a northern city that has become a center for violence, carried out the deadliest attack yet against Americans — a suicide bombing inside a mess tent at a U.S. base.

    The blast — claimed by the radical Islamic group known as the Ansar al-Sunnah Army — killed 22 people, most of them American soldiers and civilians. The bomber believed to have carried out the attack was probably wearing an Iraqi military uniform, the U.S. military has said.

    Brig. Gen. Richard P. Formica, who investigated abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, is leading a new, wide-ranging probe into security lapses that allowed the bomber to penetrate a packed mess hall on the base, authorities said Friday.

    Marines are still fighting pockets of resistance in Fallujah, while many other insurgents are believed to have fled the city, fueling the rise in violence elsewhere.

    More displaced Fallujah citizens returned to inspect their devastated homes Saturday, the third day that authorities have allowed some residents back into the devastated city.

    Much of Fallujah remains uninhabitable because of destroyed homes, unexploded explosives on the streets, and a lack of water or basic supplies. But repatriating the tens of thousands of people who fled the city before the assault is a key step in the attempt to restore stability in the city ahead of scheduled Jan. 30 elections.

    Many of those who have arrived were shocked and angry. Some complained about the strict security measures imposed by the government and U.S. troops on the returning refugees.

    "Every two hours, they are letting one car through the checkpoint," complained a returnee who identified himself only as Hassan. "And there are so many checkpoints and measures before we can get into the city, such as sniffing dogs and mirrors being put under our cars."

    On Thursday and Friday, a total 1,404 residents returned to their homes in the Andalus district of Fallujah under the supervision of government and U.S. forces, a Marine statement said.

    Some who got back to Fallujah Friday said they would rather remain in makeshift camps outside the town than return to their bombed out homes.

    Iraq's interim security minister, Kassim Daoud, said others were insisting on returning despite clashes that have continued in the city since the offensive ended — including heavy fighting on Thursday that killed three U.S. Marines.

    A posting Friday on an Islamic Web site made a rare admission of significant casualties among insurgents in Thursday's clash, saying 24 were killed. Nineteen were said to be non-Iraqi Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The rest were said to be Iraqis.