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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Terrorist who escaped from US prison killed

British forces shot and killed a leading al-Qaida terrorist more than a year after he embarrassed the U.S. military by making an unprecedented escape from a maximum security military prison in Afghanistan, officials said.

Omar al-Farouq was gunned down Monday after he opened fire on British forces during a raid on his home in Basra, 340 miles (547 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, British forces spokesman Maj. Charlie Burbridge said.

Burbridge said he could not comment on whether it was the same man who allegedly led al-Qaida's Southeast Asia operations, citing British policy not allowing him to link an individual to a specific organization.

But a Basra police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said it was the same man. The officer said al-Farouq entered Iraq three months ago, was known to be an expert in bomb making and went by the name Mahmoud Ahmed while in Basra.

Al-Farouq and three other al-Qaida suspects escaped from Bagram, in central Afghanistan, in July 2005, but the Pentagon waited until November to confirm his escape. The delay upset Indonesia, which had arrested al-Farouq in 2002 and turned him over to the United States.

In Indonesia last November, al-Farouq's wife said the U.S. government should have put her husband on trial.

"My husband was kidnapped by America but they never officially told us ... for more than three years," Mira Agustina said then. "I don't believe that my husband was a terrorist. He is only an ordinary man who cried when he watched movies about violence."

"I was shocked when news broke that my husband was a terrorist wanting to kill many people," she said, adding that she told her two daughters that their father had gone off to America "to work."

But a top security consultant in Indonesia, Ken Conboy, told The Associated Press last year that al-Farouq joined al-Qaida in the early 1990s and trained in Afghanistan for three years before unsuccessfully trying to enroll at a flight school in the Philippines so he could commandeer an airplane on a suicide mission.

He later plotted to stage car and truck bombings at U.S. embassies across Southeast Asia on or near the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but the plan was thwarted and he was captured, Conboy said.

It was not known why al-Farouq fled to Iraq, but officials have said he was born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents. In the interview last year, Conboy played down concerns that al-Farouq would go to Southeast Asia.

"He's Iraqi after all. If he's not hiding out (in Afghanistan or Pakistan), he's probably headed to Iraq to join the fight there," Conboy said then.

Al-Farouq and the three other escapees boasted about their breakout from Bagram on a video broadcast in October 2005 on Al-Arabiya television. They claimed to have plotted their escape on a Sunday when many Americans on the base were off duty. One of the four, Muhammad Hassan, said to be Libyan, said he picked the lock of their cell.

In the video, apparently filmed in Afghanistan, the men show fellow militants a map of the base and the location of their cell. Another shot in the video showed Hassan leading a prayer.

Some 250 British troops from the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment took part in the raid on al-Farouq's home Monday.

"We had information that a terrorist of considerable significance was hiding in Basra. As a result of that information we conducted an operation in an attempt to arrest him," Burbridge told the AP by telephone from southern Iraq. "During the attempted arrest Omar Farouq was killed, which is regrettable because we wanted to arrest him," Burbridge said.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, Iraqi politicians praised a deal Monday among the largest Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish groups that delays a possible division of Iraq until the constitution is amended.

But Iraq's second-largest Sunni group rejected the deal and promised to fight any effort to divide the country now or in the future.

Saleh al-Mutlaq's National Dialogue Front also accused Iraq's biggest Sunni Arab coalition of ignoring "the will of the people" by signing on to the deal and suggested it had betrayed the community for political gain.

Legislators formed a 27-member committee Monday to begin talking about amending the constitution. It will take about a year to review any changes and get them approved _ first by parliament and then by referendum.

The separate Shiite-sponsored federalism bill will be read to the legislature Tuesday and debated for two days. It could be voted into law as early as Oct. 5.

Although the deal allows Shiites to gain quick approval for their legislation, it makes them wait 18 months before it can become law. In the meantime, Sunni Arabs have a year to try to hammer out a deal to amend the constitution in an effort to dilute the federalism law.

Sunni Arabs fear that if the constitution is not amended, the legislation will splinter the country and deny them a share of Iraq's oil, which is found in the predominantly Kurdish north and the heavily Shiite south.

The deal was seen by many as a victory for Sunnis. But in many respects it was a pyrrhic victory - any constitutional amendment must be approved in a referendum, which may not be supported by many Shiites or Kurds. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's population of about 26 million. Kurds are about 20 percent and Sunni Arabs 15-20 percent.

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