"These are significant developments," said a US official in Washington, who asked not to be identified. "Both of them point to stepped up efforts on al-Qaida's part and other Islamic extremists to launch terrorist attacks in Iraq."

Hasan Guhl, a Pakistani veteran of al-Qaida operations, was captured on Thursday in Iraq where he was believed to be scoping out the turf for al-Qaida operations and working with like-minded people, the US official said. 

"He is a very significant player," the official said. "He's a longtime facilitator of al-Qaida operations in terms of moving both people and money. He has an extensive network of contacts all over the world."

Guhl was believed to have worked in the past with captured al-Qaida leader Khalid Shaikh Muhammad and is alleged to have had connections to people involved in the bombings of US embassies in east Africa.

Ansar al-Islam capture

"He (Hasan Guhl) is a longtime facilitator of al-Qaida operations in terms of moving both people and money. He has an extensive network of contacts all over the world"

US official

In another major break, US forces captured Husan al-Yamani, the leader of an Ansar al-Islam cell in the flashpoint town of Falluja, on 15 January, said another US official.

"He is the most senior Ansar al-Islam person that's been caught to date," said the official. 

Al-Yamani is considered the number two to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian with links to al-Qaida who has emerged as the leader of Ansar al-Islam, a group originally based in Kurdistan but which US military officials has established operations in the Baghdad area.

Zarqawi, who has a $5 million bounty on his head, is wanted among other things in connection with the 28 October 2002 murder of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman.

Zarqawi still at large

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has a
$5 million bounty on his head

 

The official said information about al-Yamani's capture had been closely held as interrogators worked to produce other leads. Zarqawi, whose real name is Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh, is still at large, the official said. 

It was unclear where al-Yamani was seized or what actions his cell in Falluja was involved in.

The town has been the focus of some of the most intense resistance to the US-led occupation, and the scene in recent weeks of repeated downings of US helicopters.

Before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin
Powell singled out Zarqawi to support claims that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was harbouring senior al-Qaida leaders. 

US officials said then that Zarqawi took refuge in Iraq after US-led forces drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, and received medical attention there.