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Iraqi Forces Arrest Key Zarqawi Aide

The U.S. military has confirmed the arrest of an aide to the al-Qaida chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, by Iraqi forces near the city of Baquba. The arrest was announced as the U.S. launched an operation in the western city of Haditha intended to round up insurgent suspects.

A statement released by the U.S. military describes Mullah Kamel al-Aswadi as the most wanted terrorist in north-central Iraq.

Officials say Iraqi forces made the arrest of al-Aswadi as he tried to bribe his way through a checkpoint in the town of Balad. His vehicle was found to contain a global positioning system, multiple identification papers, a scope used to launch mortars, and U.S. currency.

Abu Musab Zarqawi (undated State Dept. photo)
Officials say al-Aswadi served as a key aide to Iraq's al-Qaida front man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant. The statement says al-Aswadi was involved in the funding of terror cells, terrorist training, and the making of car and roadside bombs.

On Tuesday, an Islamist website al-Zarqawi reported had been wounded, and asked for his supporters to offer prayers for his recovery. It did not say how he was injured or where he was. U.S. officials could not confirm the authenticity of the statement.

Meanwhile, about 1000 U.S. and Iraqi troops swept through the western town of Haditha in what officials call Operation New Market. The pre-dawn offensive brought together Iraqi and U.S. soldiers who raided houses in search of insurgents, while helicopters circled overhead and Marines patrolled the Euphrates River along which the town is situated.

It is the second offensive this month in parts of western Iraq near the border with Syria where Zarqawi's supporters are believed to be hiding. U.S. officials have accused Syria of supporting insurgents who cross the border to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces.

In the earlier offensive, called Operation Matador, officials say at least 75 insurgents were killed.

But critics of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, such as Baghdad professor Naebil Younis, say the arrests and the offensives will mean little until Washington works out a formula to scale back the U.S. presence.

"What I see, the right thing to do, is to find channels for negotiations with the national resistance, so you may come to such an agreement with them about the withdrawal of American troops, at least in the meantime from the cities. This is a big problem for the people, the whole people," he said.