Seven suspected militants accused of recruiting jihadists to fight U.S. forces in Iraq pleaded not guilty Monday at the opening of their trial in Jordan.
The defendants, mostly Jordanians of Palestinian origin between the ages of 23 and 33, were detained in March and May and have been charged with plotting to undermine relations with Iraq by enlisting and dispatching at least six militants there.
It was unclear if the defendants had links to Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian- born leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who is responsible for scores of deadly suicide bombings, beheadings and kidnappings in the war-torn country.
If convicted, the seven face up to five years in jail. Their hearing was adjourned until Sept. 26.
The prime suspect was identified as Palestinian Zeid Saleh al-Horani, 27, who allegedly worked with the other members of his Jordan-based cell to recruit militants and send them to neighboring Syria to prepare for suicide bombings.
One recruit was Raed Mansour al-Banna, the Jordanian who was wrongly blamed for the Feb. 28 bombing in Hillah, south of Baghdad, that killed 125 people, according to allegations in an indictment sheet detailing the charges.
Al-Banna’s family and Jordan’s government have said he carried out a different suicide bombing and al-Zarqawi’s group ultimately claimed responsibility for the Hillah attack.
Al-Banna and five other suicide bombers are accused of being sent to Iraq through Syria in three batches since the start of 2005.
Strained ties between Iraq and Jordan
While Jordan enjoyed strong ties with Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign, many Iraqis have complained Jordan and other neighboring countries like Syria have done too little to prevent militants from entering their country to attack U.S.-led soldiers and allied Iraqi security forces.
But Jordanian authorities have been working to improve security in Iraq by training police and army cadets under a two-year U.S. sponsored program. Nearly half Iraq’s 32,000 recruits have graduated in Jordan. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has also vowed to do all he can to “quash” terrorists targeting Iraq.