WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned Iraq's neighbors yesterday against providing medical treatment or haven to Iraq's most-wanted insurgent, Jordanian fugitive Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Rumsfeld did not specify consequences or name a country, but the warning appeared intended for Syria and also may have been aimed at Iran.
U.S. intelligence analysts say they believe al-Zarqawi was injured near the Syrian border in mid-May, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the news conference.
In varied reports, militant Islamic Web sites have described al-Zarqawi as being near death, undergoing treatment in Iran and leading new waves of assaults. Iranian officials recently denied a news report that he had gone there for treatment, and Rumsfeld said the guerrilla chief is assumed to be in Iraq.
"Were a neighboring country to take him in and provide medical assistance or haven for him, they obviously would be associating themselves with a major linkage in the al-Qaida network, and a person who has a great deal of blood on his hands," Rumsfeld said. "And that's something that people would want to take note of."
The warning, among the sternest yet from the Bush administration, seemed calculated to intensify pressure on Iran and Syria, which the Bush administration has accused of turning a blind eye to fighters and funds crossing into Iraq.
Rumsfeld's comments added to a multifaceted dispute with Syria in which the United States recalled its ambassador to Damascus and Syria ended military and security cooperation with the United States in recent months. Last month, a senior U.S. military official alleged that al-Zarqawi had met in Syria with his lieutenants the month before.
"It may turn out that we can't solve the problem in Iraq without addressing the broader regional problem, of which Syria is the obvious part," said Thomas Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "They could decide to give up al-Zarqawi as a means of appeasing the United States, at least temporarily lightening the pressure on them."
The Jordanian extremist, who has taunted American and Iraqi forces with Internet and video messages, is believed to be the most senior coordinator of bombing attacks throughout Iraq. The Pentagon has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Without naming Syria, Rumsfeld drew a contrast with another neighbor whose citizens have joined the insurgency.
"I think it's very important to draw a distinction between a country such as Saudi Arabia, that's been attacked by al-Qaida, that is aggressively going after al-Qaida and capturing and killing terrorists in their country, and a country that is not doing that," he said. "And that, to me, is a very important distinction."
Officials with the Syrian Embassy in Washington did not return calls seeking comment. But Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha told reporters recently that his country had halted military and security cooperation with the United States after what he described as unjustified criticism from American officials.
On Monday, an Internet audio message, purportedly from al-Zarqawi to fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, indicated al-Zarqawi had been injured but was in good health. Its authenticity could not be verified. Myers said the Web postings were consistent with U.S. military intelligence reports, although U.S. officials could not determine the severity of al-Zarqawi's wounds.
Rumsfeld also denounced as "reprehensible" a report last week by the human rights group Amnesty International that criticized the U.S.-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a "gulag." In a lengthy statement about detainee operations, Rumsfeld echoed earlier comments by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in decrying the report.
In violence in Iraq yesterday, a mortar barrage killed three Iraqi children - ages 12, 10 and 8 - as they played outside their Baghdad home.
The children's uncle also was killed in the 6 p.m. explosions, which peppered the victims with razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel.
Two policemen were killed in drive-by shootings in western Baghdad's Amil district and the northern city of Samarra, police said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.