msnbc.com news services
updated 12/26/2007 10:59:11 AM ET 2007-12-26T15:59:11

The U.S. military announced Wednesday that an insurgent killed last month had been identified as a senior leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Separately, a bomb explosion in the northern province of Ninevah killed three children and wounded another two, the U.S. military said, quoting Iraqi police.

Elsewhere, the decomposed bodies of 17 men were found in restive Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, the Iraqi army said.

Abu Abdullah, also known as Muhammad Sulayman Shunaythir al-Zubai, was killed north of Baghdad on Nov. 8, the military said, calling him “an experienced bomb maker and attack planner who coordinated numerous attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces over the past three years, using a variety of improvised explosive devices combined with small-arms fire.”

He was also described as a former associate of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was slain by U.S. forces last year.

Police in Mosul, the capital of the province 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, said the children were killed by a roadside bomb in a residential area. Police Brig. Abdul-Karim al-Jibouri said the children, aged 10 to 13, had been on their way to school.

An hour later, another roadside bomb targeted a passing military convoy but caused no casualties, al-Jibouri added.

Separately, the 17 bodies were found in a town near the provincial capital of Baqouba, 60 miles north of Baghdad, in the past two days. All had gunshot wounds in the head.

They were among 60 bodies found in Diyala over the past month, said army sergeant Nassir al-Dulaimi, one of the soldiers who found them.

Violence drops
Despite the attacks and killings, violence in Iraq has dropped by 60 percent since June, the U.S. military has said.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said Wednesday that that the creation of groups known as Awakening Councils — which the U.S. military has dubbed Concerned Local Citizens — was a key factor in the reduction of violence.

“This is perhaps one of the most important developments in 2007,” Bergner said. “This was a decision by Iraqi citizens to confront al-Qaida and kick them out of their neighborhoods.”

The big challenge for 2008, Bergner added, was how to integrate them into Iraqi society.

“The government of Iraq has recently taken the decision to assume responsibility for those citizens, to give them financial compensation and accept qualified individuals in the ranks of the security forces,” Bergner said.

In some areas, there are “mixed Sunni and Shiite citizens groups. It is not just Sunnis now, although it is largely Sunni,” Bergner said.

But the Shiite-dominated government is concerned about the Sunni tribal groups, made up of men who in the past also fought against government forces.

“As with any transition there is a need to build confidence between individuals who at one time had been fighting the government and coalition forces,” Bergner said.

A top U.S. commander, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, warned on Tuesday that the groups must be rewarded and recognized as legitimate members of Iraqi society — or else the hard-fought security gains of the past six months could be lost.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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