BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. forces said on Tuesday they had killed or captured 40 senior al Qaeda members in Iraq, but militants threatened to kill a British hostage in 10 days as a “first warning” unless Britain withdraws from the country.
Attacks in Iraq have fallen to their lowest in nearly two years after a security crackdown, which included deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops targeting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda as well as Shi’ite militias across the country. But the appearance of a British hostage in a video, dated Nov. 18, on Arabic-language al Arabiya channel underscored the danger still posed by militants.
A large number of gunmen seized five British hostages — a computer instructor and his four bodyguards — from inside a Finance Ministry building in Baghdad in May.
The video set a deadline of 10 days from the date it was broadcast for Britain to pull its troops from Iraq. British troops are deployed in the mainly-Shi’ite south. “My name is Jason. Today is November 18. I have been here now 173 days and I feel we’ve been forgotten,” said one of the hostages on the video as he sat in front of a banner of the Shi’ite Islamic Resistance in Iraq.
The video showed a statement in which the group threatened that “this hostage will be killed as a first warning, which would be followed with details that you would not wish to know”.
Britain condemned the video.
“No matter what the cause, hostage taking can never be justified. We again call on those holding the men to release them unconditionally,” a Foreign Office spokesman said in London.
U.S. commanders say one reason for the reduction in violence in Iraq has been a series of operations aimed at al Qaeda, which has been blamed for trying to trigger all-out sectarian war through a campaign of car bombings and other attacks.
U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner said nine senior al Qaeda members had been killed and 31 caught in November, but he added that the group remained a threat. “There is no question that al Qaeda in Iraq remains a dangerous and vicious threat to the Iraqi people and to the security forces and the coalition forces,” Bergner told a news conference. “Al Qaeda continues to try to seek spectacular attacks which were so damaging and which continue to be so damaging in inciting sectarian tensions.”
Bergner said one al Qaeda member killed last month had been identified as Abu Maysara, a Syrian he described as a senior adviser to al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri. He said Maysara was killed along with five other al Qaeda fighters in a raid on a building near Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad on Nov. 17, when U.S. ground forces called in an air strike after taking fire from a building. Of the 40 killed or captured in November, four were “senior level emirs” and nine were cell leaders, Bergner said.
Maysara was an adviser to slain al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Falluja, west of Baghdad, where al Qaeda fought battles against U.S. forces in 2003 and 2004, Bergner said. “He also ran an illegal court in Falluja that was responsible for the brutal murders of countless innocent Iraqis,” he added.
Earlier on Tuesday, Iraq’s cabinet agreed to seek a final one-year extension on the U.N. Security Council mandate allowing U.S.-led foreign troops to operate in Iraq.
The current one-year mandate expires at the end of 2007. When the U.N. mandate ends in 2008, bilateral agreements will govern U.S.-Iraqi relations. The White House has said formal talks will begin early next year on the future relationship.