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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S.: Iraqi Terror Group Held Meeting in Syria

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The leaders of Iraq's most notorious terrorist group recently held a secret meeting in neighboring Syria, where they plotted the recent wave of insurgent violence that has killed hundreds of people and was intended to break the post-election lull in violence, a top U.S. military official said.

The Syrian meeting, possibly attended by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi himself, has led to one of the bloodiest periods since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago. Nearly 500 people have been killed -- including an Oil Ministry employee gunned down in front of his house Thursday -- since the country's new Shiite-dominated government was announced April 28. Several Shiite and Sunni Muslim clerics were among the victims, raising fears that sectarian tensions could ignite a civil war.

Amid the violence, Iran's foreign minister met Thursday with Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.

Kamal Kharrazi, the highest level official from any of Iraq's six neighbors to visit Iraq since Saddam Hussein's ouster two years ago, met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. No details were available, but both men have called for calm in Iraq amid an increased number of apparent tit-for-tat killings between the Shiite and Sunni populations.

Also this week, a chilling, rambling Internet audiotape purportedly of al-Zarqawi surfaced. It denounced Iraq's Shiites as U.S. collaborators and said killing them was justified.

"God ordered us to attack the infidels by all means ... even if armed infidels and unintended victims -- women and children -- are killed together," said the speaker purported to be al-Zarqawi. "The priority is for jihad so anything that slows down jihad should be overcome." The tape could not immediately be authenticated.

The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi and his key militant leaders have met at least five times in foreign countries during the conflict, most recently during the past 30 days in Syria, according to the senior U.S. military official, who briefed reporters on condition he not be named.

He did not identify the other countries but said neighboring Iran, a Shiite theocracy, was not one of them.

He said the military obtained information during questioning of insurgent prisoners, from Iraqi military sources and field intelligence in determining that the most recent meeting had taken place in Syria. He said that U.S. forces were constantly disrupting insurgent activities, but success was not guaranteed and could take "many years."

"If we fail, the different groups would be at each other's throats and warfare would continue for some time," he said. "If we take our foot off their throats, this country could be back into civil war and chaos."

The Syrian Foreign and Information ministries were unavailable for comment on the alleged gathering on their soil. Iraq's presidential adviser for security affairs, General Wafiq al-Samarie, said he had no information about an al-Zarqawi meeting in Syria.

Syrian political analyst Imad Fawzi al-Shueibi, who is close to the Damascus government, dismissed the report as "part of an organized campaign against Syria."

"Syria has no interest in [helping] al-Zarqawi," he said. "If al-Zarqawi and his group win in Iraq, they will turn the region into a fundamentalist nightmare."

The United States, at its highest leadership levels, repeatedly has demanded that Syria do more to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq across their porous 380-mile border.

At least one report suggested that al-Zarqawi himself attended the talks, the U.S. official said.

"He [al-Zarqawi] allegedly was not happy with how the insurgency was going, the government was getting stronger and coalition forces [were] not being defeated," the official said. "Some intelligence reports from captives showed that al-Zarqawi directed people to start using more vehicle-borne devices and [to] use them in everyday operations."

In response to al-Zarqawi's call, there have been 21 car bombings, mostly suicide attacks, in Baghdad during May, compared with 25 such attacks in all of 2004, the official said. Nearly 130 car bombs have exploded or been defused since late February, he said.

In Washington, General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he could not confirm or deny reports that the meeting had occurred but noted that "insurgent-inspired" activities are "clearly" taking place in Syria -- though without Syrian government collusion.

"It's very important that the Syrian government do everything within its power to keep violence from migrating or being planned in Syria into Iraq," Abizaid said on Capitol Hill.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday blamed Syria for complicating efforts by Iraq's new government to quell violence and appealed to Syria's Arab neighbors to force Damascus to close its borders.

Al-Zarqawi is Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, responsible for beheadings, assassinations and spectacular bombings, and he has a $25 million bounty on his head -- the same as for Osama bin Laden.

Also on Thursday, two Iraqi police officers were killed by a roadside bomb in the town of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.