US captures three 'al-Qa'ida militants'

American forces claimed yesterday to have captured three al-Qa'ida militants in northern Iraq.

Colonel Joe Anderson, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said in the past seven months about 10 members of Ansar al-Islam have been arrested by American troops. Officials believe that the extremist Islamic group based in northern Iraq has links to al-Qa'ida.

Asked if troops had also captured members of al-Qa'ida, Col Anderson, whose brigade controls Mosul, said: "Al-Qa'ida. Three, two weeks ago."

If true, it would represent the first time the United States military has confirmed the presence of al-Qa'ida militants in Iraq. In recent months, US forces in central Iraq detained a handful of people suspected of having ties to al-Qa'ida, but American intelligence officials described them as mostly low-level operatives.

The Bush administration has asserted that bin Laden's terrorist network maintained links with Saddam Hussein. But US authorities searching Iraq have so far said they have found little that would suggest links between the two.

On Saturday, the senior American commander in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, said that there was no conclusive evidence of its involvement in attacks on coalition and civilian targets. "We still haven't conclusively established an al-Qa'ida operative in this country," he said.

In Mosul, Col Anderson said he believed the captured men were al-Qa'ida operatives and Iraqi nationals, and said they had been transferred to Baghdad for further interrogation.

Commenting on anti-US groups operating in the north, Col Anderson said: "There are cells of different types here that we keep reading through and capturing, you know, we've got the former regime loyalists, the Baath party type groups, the Fedayeen groups, we have the AI [Ansar al-Islam], we have the AQ (al-Qa'ida) we have the Wahabis."

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