Iraqi judge assassinated as US troops capture eight rebels in crackdown

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Assassins shot dead a senior Iraqi judge in the northern city of Mosul yesterday on the same day American authorities said they had arrested eight rebel fighters, including radical Muslim fighters, in a country-wide crackdown designed to limit attacks on coalition forces during Christmas.

The judge, Youssef Mourad, was in his car when the gunmen fired several shots into his back. The killers escaped, officials said. In another part of Mosul insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a convoy of American Humvee vehicles delivering a consignment of money to a local bank. One US soldier was wounded.

South Korea announced it was to send 3,000 troops to Iraq on a nine-month assignment, starting in April, to join a group of 460 medics and engineers already assisting the coalition. The deployment means South Korea will have the third largest presence in Iraq after the United States and Britain.

On a visit to Washington, Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, conceded that the coalition had been on high alert for several weeks for further attacks in the country, that were unrelated to the recent capture of Saddam Hussein. "There has been a suggestion of high terror threats," he said. In Baghdad, Brigadier-General Mark Hertling, of the US army's 1st Armoured Division, said: "We have some indications that it would be prudent to take additional measures to counter specific potential threats."

The arrests came as US troops made three raids in Baqubah, a stronghold of anti-American sentiment about 30 miles north-west of Baghdad. Among those held, military officials said, were four suspected Muslim militants belonging to extreme religious groups associated with the fugitive former vice president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.

Douri is believed to have an important role in directing the anti-American insurgency. He is number six on the American list of 55 most-wanted former officials of the Saddam regime in Iraq and has a $10m (£5.6m) reward on his head. Thirteen of those on the list are still on the run.

The arrests highlight fears of growing links between loyalists to Saddam and radical Muslim fighters, many of whom may have been crossing the borders into Iraq from other countries to join a holy war against the coalition. Guerrillas have killed 202 US soldiers since President George Bush declared an end to the initial campaign on 1 May.

In the other raids, soldiers also captured a former Iraqi colonel suspecting of recruiting guerrillas for the anti-coalition insurgency. The colonel "is a mid-level in the national scheme, but quite important in the area," an official said. Two other Iraqis were caught digging up a cache of weapon of 82m mortar shells and rockets.

US officials say they have been making fresh headway in ferreting out leaders of the insurgency, in part because of information gleaned from the arrest of Saddam and papers that were found on him.

"We are getting some very useful opportunities in the last week or 10 days to try to wrap up the leaders of the troops that are attacking our soldiers," Mr Bremer told NBC News. He said Saddam, "'has not been particularly co-operative".

The capture of Saddam 10 days ago continues to give a political boost to President Bush. A poll by ABC News and The Washington Post showed 60 per cent of Americans approved of his handling of Iraq compared with 48 per cent in mid-November.

More than 600 Jordanian lawyers have volunteered to help Saddam's legal defence, the Jordanian Bar Association said yesterday.

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