The United States has obtained solid evidence that one-time al-Qaida associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was involved in Tuesday's near-simultaneous bombings at holy sites at Karbala and Baghdad's Kazimiya shrine 50 miles to the north, according to sources in the Bush administration.
Although accounts differ, Pentagon officials have fixed the number of dead from the blasts at 185, with wounded ranging from 300 to 400, these sources said.
"There is solid evidence of Zarqawi's involvement," one administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The evidence "pertains to forensics," this official said, adding that the explosives used in this week's bombings were "favorites" of al-Zarqawi and that he had employed them in the past.
There was additional evidence, he said, but refused to elaborate.
In Iraq, Army Gen. John Abizaid characterized the evidence as "convincing," according to a report in the Thursday's Washington Post.
U.S. intelligence and administration officials say Zarqawi is also currently a suspect in the Aug. 19 truck bombing of U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel that killed 22 people, including the top U.N. official in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The blast injured more than 100, according to United Press International dispatches.
Al-Zarqawi is also suspected of being behind the Aug. 29 truck bombing in Najaf that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, these same sources said.
U.S. officials acknowledged that they first thought al-Qaida was behind the blasts. "There was a similarity of signature to the earlier bombings -- in the way explosives were chosen, assembled, targeted and used," one U.S. government analyst said.
But he pointed out that al-Zarqawi had been trained in handling explosives in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, under the tutelage of alleged al-Qaida master bomber Abu Khabbab, one of the most wanted men in the world.
U.S. intelligence officials said that al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, may have a Chechen ancestry and maintains close links to the Chechen resistance. "It's something we're looking into," a U.S. government official said.
According to U.S. government sources, Zarqawi arrived in Pakistan in the 1980s at the height of the U.S.-financed and trained Islamic resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, also played a major part in this effort, they said, acting as principal conduit for arms transfers and as trainers for the newly arrived Sunni fighters.
Why is al-Zarqawi killing Shiites?
In a recently letter, al-Zarqawi was said to have talked of wanting to foment civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, but according to sources al-Zarqawi's loathing of Shiites is long-standing.
One U.S. official said that al-Zarqawi was suspected of being a member of a Sunni extremist organization, based in Pakistan, called the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan party.
As part of its program, the SSP has consistently declared Shiites to be non-Muslims and heretics, one U.S. official said.
According to a former senior member of India's intelligence agency, B. Raman, on June 20, 1994, al-Zarqawi "at the instigation of Iraqi intelligence," detonated an explosion at Mashad in Iran, killing a large number of Shiites.
Raman also claims that al-Zarqawi, along with Riaz Basra, now deceased, belonged to the militant wing of the SSP, called the Lashkar-e-Jhangwi, which helped the Taliban forces capture Kabul in 1996.
U.S. intelligence officials said they were aware of such reports but had not fully confirmed them. "The stories of his friendship with Ramzi Yousef are out there -- we hear them," one said. Yousef was implicated in the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Raman contends that the LEJ played a key role in the massacre of Shiites in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
One U.S. official did acknowledge that a "miniscule number" of LEJ members are "suspected of being in Iraq" among the foreign fighters there.
Information on al-Zarqawi is being closely held by U.S. intelligence officials, according to one analyst interviewed by UPI. Almost a half-dozen sources interviewed by United Press International said it was a mistake to see al-Zarqawi as a simply tool of Saudi terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden or to see al-Qaida as being behind the latest attacks.
"Zarqawi trained in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan, and he accepted their help, but he has set up shop for himself," said former CIA counter-terrorist chief Vince Cannistraro.
A serving U.S. intelligence source agreed, saying that far from being "under the thumb" of bin Laden, al-Zarqawi "had set up shop on his own," adding, "He's been very successful in recruiting Sunni Islamic extremists."
"Zarqawi has al-Qaida contacts and accepts supplies and help, but he sees bin Laden as a co-equal," this source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At first associated with Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq, a group decimated and scattered when the U.S.-Iraq war broke out in March 2003, U.S. officials said.
Al-Zarqawi then set up the al-Tawhid terrorist group, they said.
Only after a member of this group was captured by German intelligence last year did the U.S. intelligence community "begin to obtain really solid information on Zarqawi," a U.S. official said.