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U.S. Sees al-Qaida Link in Embassy Blast

U.S. Sees al-Qaida Link in Embassy Blast

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A group linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, Ansar al-Islam, may have been behind the car bombing of Jordan's embassy in Baghdad, which killed 19 people, U.S. officials said Friday.

In a new raid, meanwhile, U.S. snipers killed at least two men unloading weapons for sale in a market in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. A U.S. soldier died from a gunshot wound in western Baghdad, the military reported Friday, but investigators had not determined whether it was from combat or an accident.

American troops in Iraq have been plagued by guerrilla-style shootings and roadside bombs blamed on Saddam loyalists and other opponents of the U.S. occupation.

But Thursday's embassy bombing, in contrast, was a classic terrorist operation, and could signal a new entrant onto the scene: terror groups and foreign fighters that U.S. officials have until now said have not played a major role in anti-U.S. violence in Iraq.

Ansar al-Islam's main headquarters, in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Iraq near the Iranian border, was wiped out in American bombing early in the war. The group has been reconstituting in Iraq, with members filtering back into the country from Iran, U.S. officials have said.

U.S.-run Radio Sawa, which broadcasts to the Middle East, quoted American Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz on Friday as saying American authorities were looking at Ansar al-Islam as a potential sponsor of the bombing.

"We know that that group is in the country," military spokesman Col. Guy Shields told reporters in Baghdad. "At this point of time, it's too early to say which group is behind" the bombing.

Before the U.S. invasion, Ansar, which included veterans of bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, battled frequently with Kurds and was known to carry out suicide bombings, car bombs and assassinations of Kurdish figures. It has not been previously linked to attacks on the scale of the embassy blast.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the group was a link between Baghdad to al-Qaida when he made his case for war to the U.N. Security Council in February. But others have questioned whether there was any connection to Saddam's regime.

Morgue officials on Friday raised the death toll from the embassy blast to 19, from 11 reported the day before.

More than 50 people were wounded in the powerful explosion at the Jordanian Embassy, which set cars on fire, flung the hulk of one vehicle onto a rooftop and broke windows hundreds of yards away. On Friday, the Jordanian flag flew at half-staff as U.S. and Iraqi investigators looked through the debris for clues.

It was thought to be the first such attack since American forces took control of Baghdad April 9.

Schwartz said U.S. officials didn't have any specific information linking Ansar al-Islam to the bombing but were looking for any possible link.

"That is an al Qaida-related organization and one that we are focusing attention on," Schwartz told reporters at the Pentagon. He added, "They had, before the war, infrastructure in Iraq, and some of that remains, and our effort is focused on eliminating that."

The American soldier whose death was announced Friday was shot the night before in the upscale al-Mansour neighborhood, though the military could not say if it was combat-related. Two soldiers were killed Wednesday night in an attack in the center of Baghdad, ending a four-day period in which the military had reported no U.S. forces killed in combat.

If the soldier who died Thursday night is listed as a combat fatality, it would bring the total of U.S. soldiers to died in enemy attacks to 56 since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1. That would bring total combat deaths in the war to 170, 23 more than died in the 1991 Gulf War.

In the Tikrit weapons market Friday, witnesses and military officials said the U.S. snipers killed two men and wounded two others.

Women ran screaming as they heard the shots and saw a man who was unloading AK-47 assault rifles from the trunk of a red sedan fall to the ground, according to a witness who was selling biscuits.

U.S. forces had positioned snipers around the market after hearing that weapons and ammunition were sold there every Friday, said Lt. Col. Steve Russell, whose 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, executed the operation.

"When people pick up weapons and are carrying them freely, they become combatants and we will engage them," Russell said. "I think we sent out a strong message today that you cannot walk around the streets with weapons."

Hundreds of residents watched from across the road as soldiers examined the scene and Iraqi police removed a dead body covered in a black-and-white kaffiyah headscarf near the center of the market. Soldiers said he was shot as he tried to flee with an AK-47.

Beside the red car, about 10 yards away, the earth was soaked with blood at the spot where Russell said one of the alleged arms dealers was shot in the head as he unloaded three to four rifles. Soldiers showed reporters an ID card bearing the dead man's photo that was issued to Saddam's supporters under his regime as a sign of privilege.

Curved AK-47 cartridge clips lay carefully stacked in fours on a series of seven plastic tarps laid out in the dust. A tangle of red-and-blue wires and a crude fuse-detonated bomb lay on one of the tarps.

One of the wounded men escaped, while the other was being treated for injuries at a nearby hospital, Russell said.

Dr. Mohammed al-Jubori, chief physician at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital, said three people were killed. He said two died in the market and a third, shot in the head, died while being treated at the hospital. He said five were wounded, including a 10-year-old boy shot in the leg and hit in the head with shrapnel.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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