U.S. troops kill Iraqi allegedly linked to al-Qaida ally


BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. troops shot and killed a man who military officials suspect may have links to terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a military spokesman said yesterday.

Information about the killing of Abu Mohammed Hamza during a firefight Thursday with U.S. troops in the town of Habaniyah was sketchy. U.S. military and coalition officials offered conflicting descriptions of the episode and limited explanations about how they had tied Hamza to al-Zarqawi, who has been described as an ally of al-Qaida.

Hamza's case is another example of increased interest by the U.S.-led coalition in explaining the insurgency in Iraq and underscoring likely foreign terrorist involvement and possible links to al-Qaida.

Two weeks ago, U.S. military and coalition officials produced what they said was a memo from al-Zarqawi in which he called for inciting civil war in Iraq and boasted of his role in 25 attacks since the U.S. occupation.

Al-Zarqawi, wanted in Jordan for his role in a bombing plot in 1999 and the killing of a U.S. government worker in 2002, is being tracked by investigators, who have been unable to find a source for the bombings that have plagued Iraq since August.

If the letter is credible, al-Zarqawi's role could be a key to understanding the deadly insurgency. Coalition officials routinely name al-Zarqawi as a suspect behind attacks on coalition forces and on Iraqis cooperating with the coalition.

Yesterday, al-Zarqawi's name was again raised by the coalition in a public announcement of the killing of Hamza in Habaniyah, about 50 miles west of Baghdad.

Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne, told reporters that U.S. forces had raided a "terrorist safe house" and killed an al-Zarqawi operative. He said soldiers recovered suicide-bombing vests, equipment for making explosives and passports.

Later, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the dead man was Hamza, whom he called a bomb maker for al-Zarqawi.

Hamza was identified during a news conference as "a lieutenant of al-Zarqawi." But Kimmitt later said that term "was used loosely" and Hamza would be better described as an "associate of al-Zarqawi."

Kimmitt's description of the killing also differed from Swannack's. According to Kimmitt, Hamza was killed in a shootout with troops who were passing out informational leaflets in the neighborhood.

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