BAGHDAD — He compared al-Qaida in Iraq to wolves, urging that the terrorist group be crushed since he believed its members would never reject violence. But the wolves got to the Iraqi counterterrorism officer first.
Ahmed Subhi al-Fahal's death in a suicide bombing in Tikrit could embolden al-Qaida loyalists to try to make a return to the area around Saddam Hussein's hometown where he held sway. On Friday, within hours of his killing, dozens of Web sites affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq were already celebrating the death of their longtime nemesis.
The attack also stood as a reminder that Iraqi security officials who work closely with American forces remain a prime target for insurgents even as overall violence in Iraq fades.
Thursday's bombing, outside a goldsmith's store, also killed two of al-Fahal's bodyguards and two bystanders in Tikrit — which holds symbolic significance for the Sunni-led insurgents because of its connection with Saddam.
Al-Fahal, in his early 30s, was a lieutenant colonel in the Salahuddin provincial police force. But he was mostly known, by al-Qaida and the American military alike, as one of central Iraq's top counterterror officials, bent on purging insurgents from his turf.
"It is better to kill al-Qaida's members because it is no use to reform them," al-Fahal said in a recent interview with Al-Arabiya TV. He was paraphrasing a religious saying that there is no use in trying to reform wolves — instead, they must be killed.
And kill them he did.
In his interview, al-Fahal claimed he killed more than 250 al-Qaida terrorists: 200 Iraqis and 50 Arab foreign fighters.
Hunted down escaped inmates
He was also thrown the most difficult missions. It was al-Fahal who was called in to track down 16 prisoners — including several al-Qaida-linked inmates awaiting execution — who escaped in a stunning September jailbreak in Tikrit that deeply embarrassed Iraqi officials.
Most of the prisoners were recaptured, but al-Fahal said two escaped and at least one suspected al-Qaida member was killed.
Al-Fahal had a particularly good relationship with U.S. forces, who let him and his officers work out of Saddam's old palaces in Tikrit. When he was advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel earlier this year, the U.S. brigade commander who was then in charge of the American forces in the area threw a promotion party at his headquarters for al-Fahal.
"He was controversial, flamboyant, brave, and effective," U.S. Col. Walt Piatt wrote in an e-mail message Friday from the U.S. after hearing of his former colleague's killing. "He single-handedly disrupted numerous enemy plots during the last election — He was the go-to-guy in the province."
'All respected his courage'
Piatt said al-Fahal worked well with the Americans, "but he was the kind of person who was willing to lead Iraq to a peaceful future — for Iraqis. Many feared him but all respected his courage."
Violence in Iraq has dipped dramatically over the last two years after the surge of U.S. forces and after Sunni Arab tribes turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, particularly in western areas once part of the insurgent heartland.
U.S. data shows the monthly number of attacks in Iraq dropped from more than 4,000 in August 2007 to about 560 in September 2009. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, in September told Congress that far fewer al-Qaida and foreign fighters remain, and most of those who are left are criminals and disenfranchised Iraqis who have been recruited by a small number of hard-core insurgents.
Still, U.S.-allied security forces and religious leaders who speak out against insurgents continue to be targeted.
In October, a bomb hidden inside a mosque killed imam Narjis Shiwash during prayers in a mostly Sunni village south of Mosul, which is considered the last urban stronghold for al-Qaida in Iraq. In early November, twin car bombs targeted police in the western city of Ramadi, killing one officer.
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