Al Qaeda In Iraq?

The U.S. military is holding 20 people suspected of links to al Qaeda, the commander of American forces said Tuesday.

"Currently, we have about 20 who are suspected of being from al Qaeda," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told reporters. "We are still questioning them" and have not determined absolutely whether they are members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.

U.S. officials have said they suspect foreign volunteers, including some from al Qaeda, have slipped across the borders into Iraq to take part in a "holy war" against the U.S.-led occupation.

However, a number of U.S. commanders have said they were uncertain about the numbers of foreign fighters and their role in the insurgency.

Asked about foreign fighters, Sanchez said "hundreds" of foreigners cross the border area to carry out attacks here. Sanchez was asked how close U.S. forces had been to capturing Saddam Hussein, Sanchez replied only: "Not close enough."

American commanders have speculated that they are facing attacks from Saddam supporters, religious extremists and foreign fighters. U.S. officials have said at least some of the attacks may have been orchestrated by Saddam's former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who may have forged an alliance with the Kurdish religious extremist group Ansar al-Islam.

Ansar al-Islam is believed to have ties to al Qaeda. It was unclear whether Sanchez was referring to Ansar fighters when he said the Americans were holding about 20 al Qaeda suspects.

Sanchez said there was "no doubt" that the insurgency had intensified and that the guerrillas "have developed their capability" employing rockets and mortars in recent attacks.

Sanchez said most of the foreign fighters enter the country from Syria and across the northeastern border with Iran. He said Iraqi immigration authorities were now monitoring the border more effectively to make sure no one enters the country with forged documents.

In other developments:

  • Smoke was seen rising from the "green zone," the U.S. headquarters area in Baghdad, after a string of explosions was heard. There was no word on the cause.
  • Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the CBS News Early Show he hopes military commanders "are telling the truth" when they assure him no more troops are needed in Iraq, but he is willing to boost U.S. forces if top officers recommended it. "We're in a low intensity war that needs to be won and we intend to win it," he said.
  • A soldier who refused an order to return to Iraq so that she could stay home with her seven children has been reassigned to Colorado. But she may still face criminal charges. A military spokesman says Specialist Simone Holcomb was reassigned to Fort Carson to give her time to find care for her children or get out of the Army. Holcomb is a medic in the Colorado National Guard; her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Vaughn Holcomb, has already returned to duty in Iraq. Simone has refused because the couple fears losing a custody battle to Holcomb's first wife, the mother of two of the children.
  • Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson, who became prisoners of war in the same ambush in Iraq last March, were in unusual company Monday as they joined the ranks of Women of the Year chosen by Glamour Magazine. Britney Spears is another of the honorees. The annual award recognizes professional achievement in a variety of fields including entertainment, politics, military service fashion, music, and sports.
  • The Kurdish guerrilla group whose main fighting force of 5,000 is based in northern Iraq has decided on a new strategy. The group, which battled the Turkish army for some 15 years, announced Tuesday that it is dissolving itself and will form a new group that will likely be pan-Kurdish and will pursue Kurdish rights through negotiations. The announcement comes as the guerrillas face increasing pressure from Turkey and the United States, which both consider the guerrillas to be terrorists.
  • The U.S. military said insurgents struck again late Sunday, firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a military police convoy near Iskandariya, 40 miles south of Baghdad and killing a soldier from the 18th Military Police Brigade.
  • So far this month, 37 American troops have died in Iraq, and 151 have been killed in action since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1. One hundred others have died outside of combat. Since the war began, 389 Americans and 56 foreign troops have died.

    In Basra Tuesday, an explosion destroyed two cars on a road frequently used by British troops. Soldiers immediately blocked off access to the site, but Iraqi police said four civilians were killed and three injured in the blast.

    The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, told reporters Tuesday that although attacks against his troops have increased, the insurgents know "that from a military point of view, they can't defeat us."

    Sanchez also said that Iraqi police apprehended an ambulance Monday full of explosives, the second time that such a vehicle has been seized in the past two weeks.

    On Monday, U.S. jets dropped three 500-pound bombs in the Fallujah area after three paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were wounded in an ambush. There was no report of casualties from the bombing.

    "Neither America, nor the father of America, scares us," said one resident, Najih Latif Abbas. "Iraqi men are striking at Americans and they retaliate by terrifying our children."

    In Mosul, an oil official was wounded and his son killed when assailants opened fire at their car in the northern city Monday, his family said.

    Mohammed Ahmed Zibari, the Northern Oil Company's distribution manager, was headed to work when gunmen riddled his car, his brother Nawzat Zibari said. The brother speculated that Zibari was killed by "terrorists" because they believed he was cooperating with the Americans.