BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. forces continued their attacks on Sunni Muslim insurgents strongholds Tuesday with airstrikes against Fallujah and Hit, and assisted Iraqi troops in raiding seven mosques in Ramadi.

Also on Tuesday, gunmen released a kidnapped American photographer after three days of captivity.

The Fallujah airstrikes destroyed the city’s most popular restaurant, the Haj Hussein, a favorite kebab house for Iraqis across the region. The U.S. military said the 12:01 a.m. attack targeted a “center for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi terrorist meetings.”

Al-Zarqawi’s organization has claimed responsibility for scores of attacks on U.S. forces, as well as the beheadings of Americans Nicholas Berg, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley and, most recently, Briton Kenneth Bigley.

Another Fallujah airstrike four hours later destroyed what the military said was a Zarqawi safehouse. Fallujah hospital officials said five people were killed in the attacks, including two night guards who were keeping watch over the Haj Hussein, which was closed.

The airstrikes on Hit, about 30 miles northwest of Ramadi, killed two people, according to hospital officials. The military had no comment on those attacks Tuesday night.

The U.S. military charged that the mosques raided in Ramadi were effectively militant bases, used as weapons depots and meeting sites. Insurgents have fired on U.S. and Iraqi forces from Ramadi mosques twice this month, according to a statement Tuesday by the 1st Marine Division.

“The First Marine Division respects the religious and cultural significance represented by mosques,” the statement read. “However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status.”

A leader of the influential and anti-occupation Muslim Scholars Association, Abdel Aleem al Saadi, was detained during the raids along with his son, according to a spokesman for the association, who denounced the U.S. and Iraqi government actions.

Al Saadi, who leads the clerics association in Ramadi, “is just an old man,” Omar Raghib Zaidan said.

The association disputed the Marines’ account, saying “not one bullet was shot from a mosque.” The group claims the fighting happened on the streets. It said the attacks created more rage between the military and the city’s residents.

The military long has complained about insurgents attacking them from mosques, saying it’s tried to balance respecting religious shrines with defending itself.

A group from Baghdad’s Sadr City slum released a kidnapped American freelance photographer, saying it snatched him because it was angry that rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had negotiated a cease-fire with the Americans.

A weapons-for-cash deal is under way in Sadr City as an agreement to disarm the Mahdi Army and end fighting ahead of January elections for a national assembly.

The group said it thought Paul Taggart, a freelance photographer for the New York-based World Picture News organization, was a spy.

Taggart, his driver and translator were headed to that part of Baghdad on Sunday when they stopped briefly. A group of men surrounded their car and grabbed Taggart. His translator and driver were allowed to leave.


Sheik Ali Smeisim, al-Sadr’s aide, said an outside group that wasn’t associated with the Mahdi Army took Taggart, but contacted Smeisim and asked to meet.

“They thought he was a spy because he’s an American. And they were very angry about our negotiations with the government. They asked me, “Why did you do this agreement with the government? We’ve been fighting the occupation. This is our cause. Why should we turn over our weapons to the government?’ ” Smeisim said. “I told them the negotiations were for our own good. It’s better to release him to show the Americans we are peaceful people and a peaceful movement.”

Eventually, the group agreed to release Taggart, Smeisim said, adding that no ransom was requested or paid.

When reached Tuesday night en route to central Baghdad, Taggart said: “I’m just going to spend the night here and figure things out. I’m just glad to be free.”

A videotape surfaced Tuesday on the Internet showing what was said to be the confession and beheading of an Arab Shiite Muslim for working with the U.S. Army after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell.

A group calling itself the Ansar al Sunna Army said Ala al Maliki confessed to being a spy. On the video, the group said in a statement that al Maliki “joined U.S. Army after the fall of Baghdad and used to collect arms and ammunition to hand it to the U.S. crusader forces, in order to create a shortage (of weapons) in the market.”

The man was then held on his back and beheaded.

There were reports that an explosion at an Iraqi national guard outpost in Qaim, near the Syrian border, killed 15 to 20 people. Residents said U.S. warplanes were operating in the area and suggested that an American missile had caused the devastation. Such claims often are made even when there’s overwhelming evidence that insurgents were responsible for an attack.

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report. Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press, Kerkstra for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-12-04 1827EDT

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