A top U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday he has “absolutely no reason” to believe the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, died in a weekend raid in Mosul.
Lt. Gen. John Vines, chief of the Multi-National Corps Iraq, also confirmed that U.S. officials have the ability to determine if al-Zarqawi was there.
“I am told that there is a DNA database of some of his relatives that is able to be compared against some of those who were killed there,” Vines told reporters. “If he had been in one of those houses that were part of the objective, we could confirm that.”
Eight insurgents and four Iraqi policemen died in the raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces, including three insurgents who blew themselves up to avoid capture, officials said. The allied forces mounted an assault on a house in the northern city of Mosul that was believed used by members of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Iraq’s foreign minister has said that tests were being done to determine if al-Zarqawi was one of those killed.
Vines also staunchly refused to outline a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Despite mounting political pressure in the United States and among some Iraqi leaders, Vines said any recommendations for troop withdrawal that he makes will be based on the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the ability of the government to sustain them, and the effectiveness of the insurgency.
He added that calls for a withdrawal timetable from Iraqi leaders attending a conference in Egypt may be a factor considered by U.S. and allied political leaders, but won’t be part of a military calculation. He said the biggest long-term challenge in Iraq is ensuring that the fledgling government is stable enough to support its security forces and provide basic governing functions.
The Iraqi leaders did not set a time frame. They called for foreign troops to leave based on a timetable that also recognized the need to rebuild the country’s armed forces and control the borders.
Asked about Congress’ ongoing, often bitter political debate over Iraq policy, Vines said it is disturbing, but “that is what democracy is about.”
“Certainly soldiers are concerned about whether or not they enjoy the support of not only their elected representatives, but the people. And they know that they have their support,” said Vines.
Comments on civilian deaths
In other comments, Vines said it was tragic that civilians were killed Monday when U.S. troops fired on a vehicle they feared might hold a suicide bomber.
But, he said, “what we must never do is deprive a soldier in harm’s way of the ability to protect himself and his fellow soldiers” and their ability to make decisions based on the threat they perceive.
The troops fired on the car because it was moving erratically outside a U.S. base in Baqouba, 35 miles from Baghdad, said Maj. Steven Warren, a U.S. spokesman.