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Ahmed Ibrahim al-Dabbash, center, dressed in white with rifle over his shoulder, is seen in a photo taken just after the fall of Baghdad with other members of a local militia guarding an Iraqi Ministry of Health facility in the al-Huriya neighborhood.
By Senior investigative producer
NBC News producer
updated 4/11/2005 8:16:52 PM ET 2005-04-12T00:16:52

Acting on fresh intelligence, Iraqi and U.S. special troops are hunting a senior leader of the Iraq insurgency, a man they believe is a senior aide to terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who has organized the planting of roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of U.S. troops, NBC News has learned.

According to U.S. officials and Iraqi media reports, Ahmed Ibrahim al-Dabbash also is a slippery target, having escaped at least three efforts to track him down.

"Al-Dabbash is well connected and a very, very bad dude," said one senior U.S. official familiar with intelligence collected on the Sunni sheik. Like other officials interviewed for this article, the official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official also said that U.S. intelligence officials believe al-Dabbash is connected to al-Zarqawi and involved in the planting of roadside bombs.

Alleged commander of the Khalid Ibn Walid Brigade
Military officials go further, calling al-Dabbash a “Sunni fundamentalist,” a “mid-level financier” of Islamic terrorism in Iraq and a commander of the Khalid Ibn Walid Brigade — one of the most active terrorist cells in Iraq.  As such, say military officials, he has been instrumental in the organized planting of IEDs and “instrumental in the killing of Americans.”

In addition to his lethal credentials, al-Dabbash has numerous supporters in the Sunni community, where he was an imam who organized his neighbors to defend medical supplies against looters after the fall of Baghdad, according to U.S. officials and media reports.

Al-Dabbash was the imam of a mosque in the al-Huriya neighborhood in Baghdad in 2003 when he was the subject of several positive articles in the Iraqi and Western press.

The man now described by U.S. officials as a terrorist first emerged in the months after the fall of Baghdad. A local Baghdad newspaper lionized him for his role in forming a militia to guard a Ministry of Health warehouse in al-Huriya.  In the article, he is referred to as "Dr. Al-Dabbash," a doctor of Islamic law.

The newspaper described al-Dabbash as guarding a major Health Ministry depot the morning of the fall of the city, forming a group called “Al-Dabbash Islamic Assembly,” setting up constant patrols of armed guards and cars in several, large warehouses and administrative buildings. The patrols prevented looters from robbing the warehouses and provided security for the workers.

Protecting Health Ministry depot
In the article, al-Dabbash was quoted as saying, “On 9 April, these storehouses were looted in the morning, so we voluntarily decided to go to the warehouses, after the employees evacuated, and asked for help from the mosque in order to restore security there.”

The newspaper also stated that in addition to guarding the warehouses, the roughly 100 volunteers in Al-Dabbash Islamic Assembly were providing security and electricity for the neighborhood, ultimately becoming a Sunni militia. They fixed the main water pipes in al-Huriya and distributed free food rations to 1,450 families on the mosque account, and even opened a health center in the mosque.

When they found looters, they were disarmed and taken to the mosque, according to the report. Looters would be made to write a confession, given a religious lesson — and then released.

Then, in early December, al-Dabbash’s mosque was attacked. He blamed two prominent Shiite parties and Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite leader of the Iraqi National Congress, for the attack, believing they were seeking to inflame tensions between the two Muslim sects.

Chalabi responded by accusing al-Dabbash of being a member of former dictator Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party and denied any role.

Sought to raise Sunnis’ political profile
Al-Dabbash also was part of a group that tried to raise the profile of Sunnis in the Iraqi political scene, being among around 130 Sunni Muslim notables who formed a council in December 2003 to represent the interests of Iraq's Arab, Kurdish and Turkomen Sunni communities, a spokesman for the group said. Al-Dabbash complained of the "marginalization of this community" following the collapse of the Baath Party regime.

Since then, there has been nothing in the Western press on him and little in the Iraqi press.

U.S. military officials say it is not clear why or when al-Dabbash transformed into a terrorist, but NBC News military analyst William M. Arkin said he thinks he knows. 

“This kind of a person is proof that the occupation has a direct impact on normal Iraqis,” he said. “And clearly we have to find a balance between maintaining troop levels to do what is needed, but not so many troops that we send guys like this over to the other side.”

Robert Windrem is an NBC investigative producer based in New York

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