Syria hands Saddam's half-brother to Iraq

Four headless bodies found south of Baghdad; U.S. Marine killed Saturday

Iraqi officials said Sunday that Syrian authorities had captured Saddam Hussein's half-brother and 29 other officials of the deposed dictator's Baath Party in Syria and handed them over to Iraq in an apparent goodwill gesture.

The arrests dealt a blow to an insurgency that some Iraqi officials claim Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan was helping organize and fund from Syria. The U.S. military said two American soldiers were killed Sunday in an ambush in the capital.

Al-Hassan, a former Saddam adviser, was captured in Hasakah in northeastern Syria near the Iraqi border, two senior Iraqi officials told The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity. Hasakah is about 30 miles from Iraq.

They added that al-Hassan was captured and handed over to Iraqi authorities along with 29 other members of Saddam's collapsed Baath Party, whose Syrian branch has been in power in Damascus since 1963.

The Iraqi officials did not specify when al-Hassan was captured, only saying he was detained following the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, Lebanon, in a blast that killed 16 others.

Syria has come under intense scrutiny following Hariri's death, with many in Lebanon blaming Damascus and Beirut's pro-Syrian government for the killing. The United States and France also have called on Damascus to withdraw 15,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Washington has long accused Syria of harboring and aiding former members of the toppled Baathist regime suspected of involvement in the deadly insurgency.

"The capture appeared to be a goodwill gesture by the Syrians to show that they are cooperating," one Iraqi official told the AP.

A third Iraqi official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Syrian security forces expelled al-Hassan from Syria into Iraq after he and his supporters had been turned back in an earlier attempt to cross the Syrian border into Lebanon and Jordan.

Officials in interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed al-Hassan's capture but gave no other details. Capt. Ahmed Ismael, an intelligence officer in the Interior Ministry, said al-Hassan was detained early Sunday.

The U.S. military had no immediate comment.

Al-Hassan was No. 36 on the list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis released by U.S. authorities after American troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, and he also was named one of the 29 most-wanted supporters of insurgents in Iraq. The United States had a $1 million bounty on his head.

In a statement, Allawi's office said the arrest "shows the determination of the Iraqi government to chase and detain all criminals who carried out massacres and whose hands are stained with the blood of the Iraqi people, then bring them to justice to face the right punishment."

It was not immediately known whether U.S. troops played any role in the arrest of al-Hassan, who was the six of diamonds in the U.S.-issued deck of cards showing wanted Iraqis.

Saddam's two other half-brothers, Barzan and Watban, were captured in April 2003 and are expected to stand trial with Saddam at the Iraqi Special Tribunal. Both appeared before the special court in Baghdad with Saddam and a handful of others to hear preliminary accusations against them.

Al-Hassan's arrest came during a period of increased U.S. and Iraqi military activity against insurgents, who continued their campaign of violence against coalition forces and those Iraqis they believe are helping them or sympathize with them.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed Sunday and another two were wounded after apparently being ambushed in southeast Baghdad with a bomb and rifle fire, the military said.

The attack raised the weekend death toll for Americans to three. The U.S. command said a Marine was killed Saturday during military operations in central Babil province.

At least 1,494 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In the northern town of Hammam Alil, 240 miles north of Baghdad, a bomb exploded inside the police headquarters, killing five people, including some police officers, said Khorshid Sultan, a coroner at the main hospital in Mosul.

The hospital also said four police officers were killed in an ambush while patrolling in Mosul.

In Baghdad, gunmen attacked police heading to work in the western Amiriyah district, killing two, police said. Authorities also found the body of an Iraqi woman, dressed in traditional black, with a sign that said "spy" pinned to her chest.

Police used explosives to blow up a car bomb in central Baghdad's Kahramanah square, shaking neighboring buildings. Security forces often blow up such bombs on site instead of defusing them.

In Latifiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, Iraqi troops found four beheaded corpses on a farm. The four people belonged to the Badr Organization, a wing of the main Shiite political group, the Supreme Council For the Islamic Revolution. They were kidnapped earlier Saturday while driving to the holy Shiite city of Najaf, Yassin said.

The Badr Organization replaced the former Badr Brigade, SCIRI's armed wing, which was dissolved after a government order to disband militia groups last year.

Saddam and al-Hassan had the same mother but different fathers.

Under Saddam, al-Hassan led the dreaded General Security Directorate, which was responsible for internal security, especially cracking down on political parties opposing Saddam. Al-Hassan was accused of torturing and killing political opponents while leading that body.

He later became a presidential adviser, the last post he held in the former regime.

The government statement said he had "killed and tortured Iraqi people" and "participated effectively in planning, supervising, and carrying out many terrorist acts in Iraq."

In December, Allawi accused Syria of harboring senior officials from Saddam's ousted regime, including al-Hassan. Qassem Dawoud, Iraq's minister in charge of national security, claimed that al-Hassan was supporting insurgents in Iraq from Syria, according to remarks published last year in Kuwait's Al-Rai Al-Aam daily.

Al-Hassan's capture was the latest in a series of arrests the government hopes will deal a blow to the insurgency.

"This is a great achievement for the Iraqi security forces," National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told Dubai's al-Arabiya TV. "It is also a lesson for others to give themselves up to the Iraqi authorities."

Iraqi authorities said Saturday they were close to capturing the country's most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's mastermind in Iraq and believed to be behind much of the insurgent violence. A key al-Zarqawi aide and a man who served as his driver were arrested Feb. 20.

The United States has placed a $25 million bounty on al-Zarqawi.

By Patrick Quinn February 27, 2005, 1:54 PM EST BAGHDAD

Associated Press reporters Sameer N. Yacoub and Todd Pitman in Baghdad, and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.

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