BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials said yesterday that Syria captured and handed over Saddam Hussein's half brother, a most-wanted leader in the Sunni-based insurgency. Iraq authorities said it was a good-will gesture by Damascus.
Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan was caught along with 29 other fugitive members of the former dictator's Ba'ath Party in Hasakah in northeastern Syria, 30 miles from the Iraqi border, the officials said on condition of anonymity. The US military in Iraq had no comment late yesterday.
Syria is under intense pressure from the United States, the United Nations, France, and Israel to drop its support for radical groups in the Middle East, to stop harboring Iraqi fugitives, and to remove its troops from Lebanon.
The capture of Hassan, who was thought to be operating from northern Syria to help organize and finance militants in Iraq, was the latest in a series of arrests of important insurgent figures that the Iraqi government hopes will deal a crushing blow to violent opposition forces.
A week ago, authorities grabbed a key associate and the driver of Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq and thought to be the inspiration of the ongoing bombings and other attacks on Iraqi and US forces. Iraqi officials said they expect to seize Zarqawi soon.
Iraqis welcomed the news of Hassan's capture.
''I hope all the terrorists will be arrested soon and we can live in peace," said Safiya Nasser Sood, 54, a housewife in Baghdad. ''Those criminals deserve death for the crimes they committed against the Iraqi people."
''I consider this day as a victory for Iraqis," said Adnan al-Mousawi, a resident in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. ''By God's will Saddam will stand in court with his officials, and this will be the end of the unjust dictatorship."
The Iraqi officials did not specify when Hassan was captured, saying only that he was detained after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in a blast in Beirut that killed 16 others. Syria fell under suspicion in that attack because of its military and political domination of the country, where it maintains 15,000 troops. Hariri had quit the premiership over Syria's continued presence in Lebanon.
The United States, France, and the UN have applied extreme pressure on Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon, and Syria recently said it was pulling its forces back to the border, but not leaving the country immediately.
David Satterfield, a US deputy assistant secretary of state, was expected to meet Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud of Syria today to reiterate US demands for the withdrawal and a thorough inquiry into Hariri's assassination.
Syria encountered additional pressure after Israel on Saturday accused Damascus of harboring Palestinian militants responsible for a Friday night suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in which four Israelis were killed. The attack shattered a hard-won truce.
The French ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, told CNN's ''Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" that Hassan's handover ''would be certainly a positive development, and that's exactly what we expect from Syria."
In Iraq yesterday, two US soldiers were killed in a roadside ambush southwest of the capital -- the second and third American deaths over the weekend, pushing the overall US toll to nearly 1,500 since the war began in March 2003. The US command also said a Marine was killed Saturday during military operations in central Babil Province.
Bomb attacks and ambushes killed nine people near the northern city of Mosul, while five headless bodies -- including that of an Iraqi woman -- were discovered in and just south of Baghdad. Gunmen, meanwhile, killed two policemen in an ambush as the officers were driving to work in western Baghdad.
In Fallujah, US Marines said a child was killed and six people were injured Saturday when a rocket landed inside a park in the Jolan district. It was one of three rockets fired, the Marines said yesterday in an announcement. They said 54 people were detained during a two-day sweep for insurgents.
Captain Ahmed Ismael, an Iraqi intelligence officer, said Hassan was handed to the Iraqis yesterday. Another Iraqi official said Syrian security forces expelled Hassan after he and his supporters had been turned back in an earlier attempt to cross the Syrian border into Lebanon and Jordan. Officials in interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office confirmed Hassan's capture but gave no details.
Hassan was No. 36 --the six of diamonds -- on the list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis compiled by US authorities after Hussein was toppled in April 2003. Eleven from the deck of cards issued to help troops identify the suspects are at large. The half brother also was named as one of the 29 most-wanted supporters of the Iraqi insurgency. The United States had offered $1 million for his capture.
Allawi's office said the arrest ''shows the determination of the Iraqi government to chase and detain all criminals who carried out massacres and whose hands are stained with the blood of the Iraqi people, then bring them to justice to face the right punishment."
Iraq's postelection Shi'ite Muslim power broker, United Iraqi Alliance leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, said Hassan's arrest signaled troubled times for the insurgency.
''Those criminals are on the run, and we will chase the rest of them," he said. ''We will work on arresting all the criminals, either those inside Iraq or those in other neighboring countries, so that they can stand fair trial and be punished for the crimes they have committed against the Iraqi people."
Under Hussein, Hassan led the General Security Directorate, which was responsible for internal security, especially cracking down on political factions that opposed the Iraqi leader. Hassan was accused of the widespread torture of political opponents. He later became a presidential adviser, the last post he held in the regime.
The government statement on his capture said Hassan ''killed and tortured Iraqi people" and ''participated effectively in planning, supervising, and carrying out many terrorist acts in Iraq."
Hassan was also thought to have been responsible for setting up shadowy companies in Jordan to overcome UN sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Hassan also has been linked to attempts to sell looted Kuwaiti treasure.
His son, Yasser al-Sabawi, was mentioned by Iraqi security officials last year in the beheading of Nicholas Berg, a 26-year-old from West Chester, Pa. Suspicion later fell on Zarqawi. It was unclear whether the two men had any connection.
Hussein's two other half brothers, Barzan and Watban, were seized in 2003 and are expected to stand trial along with Hussein at the Iraqi Special Tribunal.