/ 24 April 2009

Iraq: Dozens killed following al-Qaeda leader capture

At least 83 people were killed across Iraq on Thursday in four bombings that swiftly followed the apparent arrest of the country’s most wanted man, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq.

The worst of the carnage was caused by two suicide bombers. The first detonated inside a restaurant in Baquba, about 64km north of Baghdad, killing at least 48 Iranian pilgrims and wounding at least 50 more, many seriously. Dozens of victims were still buried under an adjoining building, local police officials said.

A second attack took place in Baghdad around midday, killing 28 Iraqis, mainly police officers, who were distributing aid to refugees in al-Tahriyat square in Karrada, near the centre of the city. A third bomber targeted a mosque near the home of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, killing at least seven, while a fourth targeted an American military convoy in Mosul. The fourth attack caused no casualties.

Major General Qassem Attar of the Iraqi army later said Baghdadi had been arrested around noon in Resafa district, not far from the scene of the second explosion, in what he described as a ”heroic operation” by Iraqi forces. He said the bombings were likely to have been al-Qaeda’s response to the arrest.

The attacks came amid improving security in Iraq. The number of violent deaths has fallen in recent months to its lowest level for years. But the full toll of the sectarian conflict that followed the invasion was laid bare yesterday in Iraqi government figures reported by Associated Press which showed that at least 87 215 Iraqis were killed in violence since 2005.

The capture, or death, of Baghdadi had been announced at least twice before in the three years since he took control of al-Qaeda in Iraq after his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed by an American air strike in June 2006. Ever since, Baghdadi had been hunted by Iraqi and US forces, who believe he co-ordinated the Sunni side of the insurgency that raged from 2005 to late 2007.

The announcement of his capture was treated cautiously by American and British military officials who now have less access to details of Iraqi military operations than they did last year. But several officials on Thursday night described the announcement as credible.

The head of the Sunni Sahwa or awakening movement, which split from al-Qaeda in mid-2007, sparking the group’s decline in influence, said the arrest was a welcome step that would add to stability.

”Abu Omar al-Baghdadi is not the first al-Qaeda leader to be arrested and he won’t be the last,” said Abu Muhammad, a Sahwa spokesperson.

”However, his arrest does offer further evidence of how much security has developed.”

Baghdadi’s arrest, near the centre of the capital, surprised some Iraqi government observers, who thought heightened security would make it hard for him to operate.

But Sunni insurgents, believed to be linked to al-Qaeda had recently demonstrated an ability to launch co-ordinated attacks when it suited them. Baghdad was rocked early this month by seven bombs in one day.

And Thursday’s series of bombings appeared to show that the group’s capacity to wreak mass havoc at short notice still exists. – guardian.co.uk