Zarqawi's fighters in 'heart of Baghdad'

By James Drummond in Baghdad

Financial Times

Published: September 18 2004

US officials said on Friday that Islamist fighters linked to militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are operating close to government headquarters in Baghdad.

The admission came as a car bomb struck a police checkpoint in Rashid Street, the old commercial centre of the Iraqi capital, killing eight people. The toll would have been higher had it not been a Friday when many shops and businesses are closed.

A second car bomb in Baghdad was foiled when guards opened fire and killed the two men inside.

In an effort to stem the violence, Iraqi police and national guard units launched a crackdown on the Haifa street neighbourhood of Baghdad on Friday.

The area is about 2km north of the Green Zone, where the US and British embassies and interim Iraqi government are based.

"Iraqi police and national guard have got targetable intelligence. They are going after individuals that have known relationships to terrorist activitie s, to the Zarqawi network and to insurgents," a senior US officer said on Friday of Haifa street.

"We'll see by the end of the day and by tomorrow how effective it is at capturing some of these key folks," the officer said.

The comments will do little to deflect the view that Baghdad is a city increasingly under siege by militants determined to spread an insurgency which grips several mainly Sunni cities in northern and western Iraq.

Mr Zarqawi is thought to be the leader of one of several Islamist groups based in Falluja and is held responsible for the kidnap and execution of several foreigners.

Haifa Street, west of the Tigris river, is believed to have been used as the launch site for a heavy bombardment of the Green Zone last Sunday.

US forces subsequently killed at least a dozen people in the district after an armoured fighting vehicle was blown up. On Tuesday nearly 50 Iraqis, most of them potential police recruits, were killed when a car bomb struck a nearby police st ation apparently in retaliation.

Overnight on Thursday and on Friday, the US military mounted two air raids on Falluja, west of Baghdad, and killed up to 60 foreign insurgents.

The US military said the first of the air strikes had targeted a compound in the village of Qaryat al-Rufush, near Falluja, where up to 90 foreign militants were meeting to plan attacks. The Iraqi government and its US backers however provided little evidence for the presence of non-Iraqi fighters in the country.

The US military said it was embarked on a campaign to pacify areas of Iraq outside central government control, ahead of elections due in January. The UN has said the elections cannot go ahead unless the security situation improves.

βΆ Iraq's national carrier, Iraqi Airways, will resume international flights on Saturday after 14 years grounded by war and sanctions, Reuters reports.

The airline will begin scheduled flights to Syria and Jordan twice a week.

"This is the first step for Iraqi Airways. We hope to expand our services to Dubai within weeks," an airline official said.

More international flights could help boost Iraq's reconstruction by providing more travel alternatives for businessmen and investors keen to avoid highways plagued by bandits and gunmen.

But with security deteriorating, and a wave of kidnappings of foreigners, many foreigners choose not to come. Until now there have only been a few daily commercial flights in and out of Baghdad, almost all to Amman.