| Five-year-old Mustafa does a handstand in front of US soldiers in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Baghdad, June 25 (Reuters): US warplanes bombed a suspected guerrilla safe house west of Baghdad today, stepping up a hunt for Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi believed to be behind a series of deadly attacks in Iraq.
“Somewhere between 20 and 25 people were killed in today’s strike,” said a US-led coalition official, who declined to be named. It was not immediately clear who was among the dead.
The US military said the house in the restive town of Falluja, some 50 km from Baghdad, was a “known Zarqawi network safe house” and was destroyed in the daylight strike, the third on suspected Falluja safe houses this week.
“This operation employed precision weapons to target and destroy the safe house and underscores the coalition’s continuing resolve... to completely destroy terrorist networks,” Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said in a statement.
Falluja residents said the house, in the southeast of the city, was reduced to rubble.
Washington, due to hand over to an interim Iraqi government on June 30, accuses Zarqawi of links to al Qaida and say he has masterminded a number of major attacks, as well as being responsible for the beheading of an American and a South Korean. Militants in Falluja issued a taped statement today denying Zarqawi was holed up in the town.
The attack occurred shortly before Iraqi defence minister Hazim al-Shalaan warned guerrillas that Iraq’s security forces, backed by the US-led coalition, were determined to crush them.
“Today is the day for the Iraqi people to say to these traitors that the time has come for a showdown and God willing that showdown will be big and victory will be for us, the people,” said Shalaan, flanked by the interior minister. Both ministers blamed Iraq’s instability on foreign fighters and said it was up to all Iraqis to cooperate with the new interim government in putting an end to the guerrilla threat.
“We have capacities and capabilities that will soon be seen,” Shalaan said.
Militants killed three Iraqi policemen in an attack with rocket propelled grenades on a police station near the town of Baquba, north of Baghdad.
Some of the black-clad gunmen who attacked police and government buildings in Baquba proclaimed loyalty to Zarqawi and wore yellow headbands linking them to his militant group.
Allawi fears flare-up
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi blamed foreign fighters and Saddam Hussein supporters for killing more than 100 people in suicide bombings and other attacks today.
“We are going to defeat them...We have been expecting this escalation and we are expecting more escalation in the days ahead,” Allawi said.
Iraq’s third largest city Mosul was worst hit in yesterday’s attacks, with four suicide bombings killing 62 people, including a US soldier, and wounding 220, a senior coalition military official said.
He said the attacks showed signs of loose coordination between groups intent on destabilising Iraq and warned of more bloodshed before and after the June 30 handover, when the US-led occupation formally ends.
Zarqawi threatened in a taped message on an Islamist Internet site on Wednesday to assassinate Allawi. A CIA official in Washington said the voice on the tape was probably that of Zarqawi himself.
Iraq’s national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said Iraqi officials had good intelligence on Zarqawi.